Judged by Debbie • Find her on Goodreads
First of all, I’d like to say how chuffed I am (dead chuffed) to get to be part of this battle. I got to know Beth on GoodReads by eavesdropping on last year’s battle and other conversations between her and my long-time reading friend Hallie and other mutual friends. So, when Beth approached me this year asking if I’d be interested in being one of the judges, I jumped at the chance. What fun!
Funnily enough, when Beth gave me the assignment to read The Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson Levine, and The Wrinkled Crown, by Anne Nesbet, I had just finished reading an ARC of Karen Cushman’s latest book, Grayling’s Song, which has a lot in common with these two choices. All three concern a young girl, one who needs to prove herself or to “find” herself, setting out on an adventure in the Wide World, despite her own misgivings, in order to save someone close to her: a sister, a friend and a mother, respectively. So I was almost judging between three books, but you’ll be glad to know that I think I would have rated the Cushman third of the three, as much as I admired its craft and poetic writing. So, now I have to choose between two superficially similar but in many ways very different books.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre is the first book I’ve read by Gail Carson Levine, though, for what it’s worth, I have seen the movie of Ella Enchanted. It introduces us to a fairly generic medieval-ish “fairy tale” setting, a castle-studded land of princesses, dragons, wizards and ogres. As if fending off magical beasties were not enough, the people of Bamarre are in constant danger from the Grey Death, a plague-like illness that is always fatal. The “Two Princesses” of the title are Meryl, the older one, who is learning to be a hero in order to rid the world of the plague that killed their mother, and Adelina – Addie – the narrator, who relies on her sister to protect her from all the things in the world that terrify her. Soon after the book begins, Meryl falls ill with the Grey Death, and it is up to Addie to save her, with the help of a handsome young apprentice wizard named Rhys. There is a mysterious prophecy about the way the Grey Death can be overcome, and Addie has to overcome her own fears and follow clues in the national epic of the hero Drualt, if she is to save her beloved sister.
This is a thoroughly delightful story that I would have loved when I was a child. There isn’t a formal genre of “cosy fantasy,” but if there were, this would be in it. It has all the trappings of a fairy story without any real darkness or ambiguity; this may be one of its strengths, depending on what you are looking for in a book, or one of its weaknesses perhaps in comparison with the other book in this match-up. Addie is a charming, resourceful girl whom we root for all the way along. The story is extremely suspenseful, and the final few chapters keep you gripped to the page – I stayed up far too late finishing it.
Although overall I found the world-building a bit generic, with a somewhat vague sense of geography, there are some flashes of genius. For example, I loved the description of the way wizards are born. Wizards are born when lightning strikes marble. The lightning and the marble combine into a flame, and within the flame is the sorcerer:
He would look about him for a moment. Then he would look inward and learn what he was. In a burst of joy he would rocket into the sky, in the storm, showering sparks.
This is wonderful, and I wish we had learned more about them, their community and their powers.
I loved one whole section where Addie is captured by an eloquent, lonely dragon – a whole different book could have been written about this dragon and her relationship with her victims. The way this particular plotline was resolved was a bit of a disappointment, and left me feeling let-down.
I really liked the way the “epic” of the hero Drualt is inter-woven into the story. It adds some depth and resonance to the fairy-tale culture, and Levine captures a very authentic Beowulf-like tone in the poetry.
I’m not sure about the effectiveness of the first-person narrative, particularly in terms of how we are meant to see Addie overcome her own fears. It felt to me that we knew Addie was scared of things because she told us so, and each time she has to face her fears that facing seemed a bit easy. There is a charming love story, but that, too, seemed a little too easily resolved and we seem to lose sight along the way that Addie is only twelve.
Linnet – Linny – the heroine of The Wrinkled Crown is also twelve, or just about to turn twelve at the opening of the book. Lourka, where Linny has grown up, is a small world within a bigger one, consisting of the village, the forest and the hills. If you wandered too far downhill you might never come back, although occasionally one or two people might wander in from the outside world; among those was Linny’s mother. There are drifts of magic – wrinkles – in the world, and some people have gifts of wrinkles. Linny’s is “humminess” inherited from her father, and the power of never getting lost that she gets from her mother. Everyone knows that girls must not touch a lourka – the musical instrument that gives a name to their world – before their twelfth birthday, or risk being carried off to Away. Because of her gift of “humminess,” Linny’s family and her best friend Sayra, whose gift is making things out of silk, have tried hard to prevent Linny from touching a lourka. Linny has secretly not only touched a lourka, she has built one for herself and taught herself how to play it. When the birthday arrives, however, it is not Linny but her beloved friend who is taken by the Voices, so it is up to Linny to find some way to bring her home. She heads off, accompanied by “that lummox” Elias, a boy who also loves Sayra, to the Broken City, where her aunt lives, and where she might be able to get some medicine that will cure Sayra. The main action of the novel takes place in the Broken City, a land split between those who respect and use the “wrinkles” (magic), and those who rely on technology and want to destroy the wrinkles entirely.
This is such a merry, rollicking, complex and wondrous book. It’s the first of Nesbet’s books I’ve read, but if her others are like this I want to read them. The writing is robust and colourful; Linny is an impulsive, curious, quick, clever and thoroughly delightful girl, and she remains thoroughly herself throughout the book, even as she learns that sometimes rushing into things isn’t the best way. The world of Lourka and the Broken City is inventive and reflects some political depths – things are ambiguous and not as clear-cut and simple black and white, right and wrong. The author that Nesbet reminds me of most is Frances Hardinge – especially those of her books involving Mosca and her goose. This is high praise.
If I have one complaint, it might be that there is so much to be contained in one book. There seemed to be plots and sub-plots and twists and turns, one colourful character appearing after another. I suspect and hope that there might be a sequel, one that will help to resolve some of the political loose-ends and tell us more about how the “wrinkles” work and whether the two sides of the Broken City can ever be reunited.
Both these books are well worth reading. I thoroughly enjoyed The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but The Wrinkled Crown took me somewhere I’d never been and kept me buoyed with colourful writing. For that reason, I choose The Wrinkled Crown to advance to the next round.