The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the kingdom of Bamarre live two princesses: the brave Meryl and the cowardly Addie. When Meryl is stricken by the incurable Gray Death, Addie must find her courage if she is to save her beloved sister's life.
It's been a while since I picked up one of Gail Carson Levine's books, and I'm glad I chose this one. I didn't love Ella Enchanted: despite the promise of its brilliant premise, the execution was flawed. Though The Two Princesses is the second of the Enchanted books set in the same fantasy world, it is a completely separate story from Ella Enchanted. This series can be read in any order.
In The Two Princesses, the simple fairy-tale style fits the story well, and I found myself completely absorbed in Addie's quest to save her sister. Levine is known for writing strong female characters and the sisters' friendship is the central relationship of this story.
The dragon Volly is a great, complex villain - in spite of her charms, it's hard to forget that she's a monster who likes to play tyrannical mind games with her unfortunate victims (and future meals). She's a true descendant of Smaug from The Hobbit.
I love seeing classic fairy tale elements used like this: the specters that try to mislead travelers are extremely creepy, and I want a pair of Seven League Boots for myself (as well as one of those nifty magical tablecloths). In the background is the story of Drualt, a hero of ages past who left Bamarre after its people failed to live up to the example of his endless courage. Levine knows her fairy tales and Drualt is a combination of King Arthur and Beowulf: a monster-slaying hero who is too good for his world.
Fans of Levine might also try Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series, Robin McKinley's Beauty, or Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle.
For other strong female characters in unique fantasy worlds, check out Garth Nix's Sabriel (darker than Levine's stories), Kristen Cashore's Graceling, Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing With Dragons, or Terry Pratchett's funny and charming Tiffany Aching series, beginning with The Wee Free Men.
There are so many fairy tale/fantasy books out there for the YA crowd that star great heroines. Add this one to that list for the YA readers in your life!
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