I’ve been a fan of Shannon Hale’s ever since I first read the Books of Bayern a few years back. Still, it took me a while to read her Newbery Honor book, Princess Academy. This fall, with the release of Palace of Stone, I finally decided it was time to dive into Miri’s story.
Author: Shannon Hale
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Publication date: July 2005
Hardcover: 314 pages
Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.
Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Princess Academy series
How did I get this book: Bought
Miri is a young girl that has lived all her life on Mount Eskel, an unforgiving mountain that reaches far above the lowlands of Danlow. Here, Miri lives a quiet mundane life with her Pa and elder sister, Marda, tending to the family’s goats and meager stores. Forbidden from working in the quarry where all other mountainers, male and female alike, mine linder – a rare, marble-like stone and Eskel’s only natural resource – Miri has always felt separate from those of her village. Ever since coming of age to work in the mines, Miri has felt this exclusion bitterly, ashamed that her father finds Miri too small and weak to contribute to the mountain’s only source of commerce.
With the imminent arrival of the traders from the lowlands below and impending winter, Miri feels this slight even more sorely, but she’s determined to make a good deal to keep her family warm and fed through the coming hard months. When the traders arrive, however, they bring unwelcome noble lowlanders with them. See, the mountainers and city folk of the lowlands have always remained separate, minding their own business – to those of Mount Eskel, the lowlanders are arrogant and soft, and they are happy to stay out of each others’ way…until now. The King’s priests in the capitol below have ordained, as is custom, the province from which the new princess will be selected – unprecedentedly, their readings have pointed to Mount Eskel. Because there are no noble families on the remote mountainside, all girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen are to leave their families immediately and begin attending a haphazard Princess Academy at the base of the mountain, where they will learn to read, write, and be trained in manners and courtly ways. Once their training is complete, the prince will travel to Eskel and, after a grand ball held at the Academy, will choose his future bride.
Like all the other eligible girls from her village, Miri is yanked from her home and thrown into life at the Academy under the harsh tutelage of the school’s headmistress. Soon, Miri finds herself locked in fierce competition with the other girls to emerge at the top of class – but more importantly than drawing the prince’s eye, Miri is enamored with the knowledge she amasses at the academy, and what she discovers about herself along the way.
Well guys, color me embarrased. I cannot believe it took me so long to read Princess Academy because – wouldn’t you know it? – I loved this book. I was hesitant to read this title from Shannon Hale, despite loving the Books of Bayern so much, because the title sounds a little…well, silly. I confess, I did not want to read Princess Academy because the idea of girls competing to get a Prince’s attention makes me a little nauseated. Of course, that’s not really what Princess Academy is about, not at all. In truth, this book is about a young girl who discovers the world is so much larger than she’d ever previously imagined, and her own place in it. It’s about memory, tradition, and the bonds of not only family and friendship, but of the kinship of community. All of these are wonderful things, executed to pitch-perfection by Hale throughout the novel. Add to this, a strong fantastical element through the power of the Eskelian’s linder stones, and a tone that is reminiscent of Hale’s other fantasy novels and the magic of Tamora Pierce – and you’ve got a very deserving Newbery Honor book.
I think I could wax poetical about Princess Academy for a while – so I’ll just pull out a few bits that I loved the most. Our protagonist, Miri, is a heroine to remember, with her own insecurities and strengths. Miri’s growth, from a girl that covered up her insecurities with a laugh and a quick turn of phrase, to a wise and reasoned leader, is fantastic and a driving force behind Princess Academy. Her relationship with the other girls in the academy, from the challenges of the snippier older girls like the competitive Katar and the quiet friendship of orphan Britta, are similarly wonderful and memorable. I think what I loved most of all, though, was watching Miri’s wonder as she learns to write and to read, about commerce and debate, and how she applies those lessons to the betterment of her fellow peers and Eskelians.
Basically, I loved this book. I loved it so very much that immediately upon finishing it, I eagerly picked up and devoured Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, to continue Miri’s adventures. And I’m very, very happy to eat crow because Princess Academy is all kinds of wonderful. If you haven’t read this book yet, what are you waiting for? I highly recommend it.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: From Chapter 1:
The east says it’s dawn
My mouth speaks a yawn
My bed clings to me and begs me to stay
I hear a work song
Say winter is long
I peel myself up and then make away
Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house’s stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day.
Then she remembered the traders, kicked off her blanket, and sat up. Her father believed today was the day their wagons would squeeze up the mountain pass and rumble into the village. This time of year, all the villagers felt the rush for the last trading of the season, to hurry and square off a few more linder blocks and make that much more to trade, that much more to eat during the snow-locked months. And Miri longed to help.
Wincing at the rustle of her pea-shuck mattress, Miri stood and stepped carefully over her pa and older sister, Marda, asleep on their pallets. For a week she had harbored an anxious hope to run to the quarry today and be already at work when her pa arrived. Perhaps then he might not send her away. She pulled her wool leggings and shirt over her sleep clothes, but she had not yet laced her first boot when a crunch of pea-shucks told her that someone else had awakened.
Pa stirred the hearth embers and added goat dung. The orange light brightened, pushing his huge shadow against the wall.
“Is it morning?” Marda leaned up on one arm and squinted at the firelight.
“Just for me,” said their father.
He looked to where Miri stood, frozen, one foot in a boot, her hands on the laces.
“No,” was all he said.
“Pa.” Miri stuffed her other foot in its boot and went to him, laces trailing on the dirt floor. She kept her voice casual, as though the idea had just occurred to her. “I thought that with the accidents and bad weather lately, you could use my help, just until the traders come.”
Pa did not say no again, but she could see by the concentrated way he pulled on his boots that he meant it. From outside wafted one of the chanting songs the workers sang as they walked to the quarry. I hear a work song say winter is long. The sound came closer, and with it an insistence that it was time join in, hurry, hurry, before the workers passed by, before snow encased the mountain inside winter. The sound made Miri’s heart feel squeezed between two stones. It was a unifying song and one that she was not invited to join.
Embarrassed to have shown she wanted to go, Miri shrugged and said, “Oh well.” She grabbed the last onion from a barrel, cut off a slice of brown goat cheese, and handed the food to her father as he opened the door.
“Thank you, my flower. If the traders come today, make me proud.” He kissed the top of her head and was singing with the others before he reached them.
Her throat burned. She would make him proud.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 8 – Excellent, leaning towards a 9
Author: Shannon Hale
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Publication date: August 2012
Hardcover: 323 pages
Coming down from the mountain to a new life in the city seems a thrill beyond imagining. When Miri and her friends from Mount Eskel set off to help the future princess Britta prepare for her royal wedding, she is happy about her chance to attend school in the capital city. There, Miri befriends students who seem so sophisticated and exciting… until she learns that they have some frightening plans. They think that Miri will help them, that she “should “help them. Soon Miri finds herself torn between loyalty to the princess and her new friends’ ideas, between an old love and a new crush, and between her small mountain home and the bustling city. Picking up where “Princess Academy “left off, this incredible stand-alone story celebrates the joys of friendship, the delight of romance, and the fate of a beloved fairy tale kingdom.
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Princess Academy series
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher (from BEA)
WARNING: This review contains unavoidable spoilers for book 1 in the Princess Academy series. If you have not read Princess Academy yet and wish to remain unspoiled, look away.
It has been a year since the Princess Academy at the base of Mount Eskel has closed its doors, and Britta and her Prince Steffan have been betrothed and moved to the palace at the heart of Danland. Miri, now a lady of the Princess along with all her cohorts and fellow graduates from the Academy, has had a busy time on Mount Eskel, overseeing the education of other villagers and implementation of new trade practices that have enriched the lives of her fellow mountain dwellers. With the new traders arriving on the mountain, however, also comes change – Miri is invited by Britta to travel down to the lowlands to attend the forthcoming royal wedding and to study at the Queen’s College for a year. And, ever drawn to learning more, Miri agrees. It doesn’t hurt that a select few of her fellow Academians are heading down with her for the wedding, or that Miri’s beau Peder is also heading to the capitol for the year to apprentice under an accomplished stone carver.
But when Miri and her friends get to the fabled lowlands, they learn that all is not well in the kingdom. Revolution is brewing, and Miri finds herself embroiled at the heart of the movement, torn between her love for best friend Britta, and the need to protect Mount Eskel and her kin from impending doom.
The long-awaited sequel to Princess Academy, Palace of Stone was seven years in the making – but thanks to my tardiness in reading the first book in this series, I had to wait all of two minutes before starting this second novel. In this respect, my reluctance to read Princess Academy TOTALLY paid off. But enough gloating – how did the second novel stack up, you ask? I was curious to find out myself, especially considering how well self-contained Princess Academy is as a standalone novel.
In the letter from Shannon Hale at the front of the ARC, she talks about how a particular word sparked her desire to write a second book detailing Miri’s next adventure: revolution. On this promise, Hale delivers – because Palace of Stone is a book steeped in revolution and change. While Princess Academy is a book in which Miri discovers her own self-worth in the eyes of others, Palace of Stone is the book in which Miri discovers what she wants for herself and her own future. Will Miri settle for the life offered by the home she has always known on Mount Eskel, or will she find herself at home in the lowlands with its promise of knowledge, riches, and adventure? It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and a decision that is both complicated and unexpected.
As with the first novel, Palace of Stone excels in the characterization department – I loved being reuinted with Miri and her friends, and watching her grow from mountain girl to scholar (albeit one with many missteps). I love the moral dilemmas that Miri faces in this second novel as she discovers the machinations and politics that come with running a kingdom – but at the same time, I love her adherence to older lessons learned at Eskel’s Princess Academy and her reliance on her heart to guide her true. In this second novel, Peder plays a much larger role in the story, as does newcomer Timon – the third player in the requisite love triangle of doom.[1. Okay, to be fair, the love triangle doesn’t last very long and Miri figures out what (and who) she wants fairly quickly, so it’s not exactly a love triangle of doom – but still.] As a character, Timon provides a nice contrast to Peder’s quiet timidity when it comes to expressing his feelings for Miri – Timon is passionate to a fault, while Peder is careful and stoically determined. I won’t spoil who Miri chooses, but it’s a good choice in my opinion.
Beyond the male characters, there’s some nice depth that’s given to some other familiar faces from Princess Academy – from Katar, the new delegate of Eskel permanently at the palace, to Esa, Peder’s carefully considering and medically ambitious sister, to the beautiful and secretly spiteful Liana. This second novel also explores the history of Danland, and further the unique properties and abilities of Eskel’s linder stones and those touched by the precious rock. Once again, memory, history, and record play a big role in the aptly titled Palace of Stone, and I appreciate this deeply. There is plenty to learn here about the kingdom of Danland at large, and the politics and decisions that shape public opinion – and while things might be a tad simplistic in this book overall, the underlying principles – of justice, taxes hefted on the poor, and basic rights – are sound and resonant.
While Princess Academy can stand alone as a solo novel, I did love finding out more about Miri and Peder and Britta and the other girls of Eskel – and I am happy to say that Palace of Stone is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor. Absolutely recommended.
Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read the official excerpt below…
…or online HERE.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading next: Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes
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