Fairy Tale Friday: The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.

When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside torn in half or smashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that holds Sand prisoner. Why wasn’t this in the stories? To survive, Sand does what he knows best—he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending? Or have the saints who once guarded this place returned? When Sand finds the castle’s lost heir, Perrotte, they begin to untwine the dark secrets that caused the destruction. Putting together the pieces—of stone and iron, and of a broken life—is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it’s the only way to regain their freedom.

Rating: 2/5

The Castle Behind Thorns is a unique reinvention of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale (although it’s not marketed as such, it’s got Sleeping Beauty written all over it), where Sleeping Beauty wakes up not because of a kiss but because someone is fixing everything that was broken in the abandoned castle. I like adaptations of fairy tales that place the fairy tale somewhere in history, and this particular world is closely tied to the religion and the politics of medieval France.

The message of forgiveness laid out in the novel is good, although laid on a little thick by the end. The moralizing message is a bit much for an adult reader, but it might be just the thing a younger reader might need to hear. Haskell seems to have a much heavier hand here than she did in either Handbook for Dragon Slayers or The Princess Curse, so I’m not quite sure if she had a different audience in mind or if she simply thought a less subtle application of her point was needed because of the world she had built. It’s a good message of forgiveness, but it perhaps could have been communicated in a way that was less moralizing and thus less likely to turn people off from it (though, again, a younger audience may be more receptive).

However, I didn’t enjoy The Castle Behind Thorns as much as I enjoyed Haskell’s other works, and I’m not quite sure why. The lack of subtlety may have been one reason. Ultimately, though, I just didn’t find much about the book incredibly interesting. I’m not all that fond of Sleeping Beauty and Haskell wasn’t so unique in the telling of it as to make me really involved in the world and the plot. The premise was good and so was the reimagining of the fairytale as a whole, but the book wasn’t strong as a whole. I’ve read better versions of Sleeping Beauty and better books by Haskell. The Castle Behind Thorns is good, but not great; interesting, but not enticing; imaginative, but not groundbreaking. I’d much rather read The Princess Curse again.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairy Tales, Middle Grade

He, Sand, had done all this. He had saved these things, sorted them, repurposed them, and made them work again.

With his mended broom held above his head like a sword, he shouted: “I am Sand, lord of this kitchen!”

Even though when he said it out loud, he could hear how silly it sounded, he knew that it was incomplete. There was no one here to challenge his rule, no one here to tell him otherwise.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2pNrATa

Fairy Tale Friday: The Princess Curse

The Princess Curse is written by Merrie Haskell. It was published in 2011 by Harper.

Twelve princesses suffer from a puzzling—and downright silly—curse. Ridiculous though the curse may be, whoever breaks it will win a handsome reward. Sharp-witted Reveka, an herbalist’s apprentice, has little use for princesses, with their snooty attitudes and impractical clothing. She does, however, have use for the reward money, which could buy her a position as a master herbalist. But curses don’t like to be broken, and Reveka’s efforts lead her to deeper mysteries. As she struggles to understand the curse, she meets a shadowy stranger (as charming as he is unsettling) and discovers a blighted land in desperate need of healing .Soon the irreverent apprentice is faced with a daunting choice—will she break the curse at the peril of her own soul?

I love how the setting of The Princess Curse is a combination of mythic and historical, with the story taking place in Romania (I think?) with mentions of Hungary, Transylvania, and other Eastern European countries (or provinces). There’s also a strong, latent Greek myth presence beneath all the Romanian folktales.

I also love how this story combined the “12 Dancing Princesses” and “Beauty and the Beast” in a way that made so much sense and worked really well. I thought the “12 Dancing Princesses” part was really unique, not only because Reveka is a girl but also because the setting and everything else was done so well that it really made it stand out from other iterations of the same fairy tale. As for the “Beauty and the Beast” part, well, I love “Beauty and the Beast.”

I loved Reveka’s snark and the sarcastic and dry humor scattered throughout the book; in fact, on the very top of the second page of the book is this absolutely wonderful sarcastic rejoinder that immediately made me realize that I was going to love this book. And I did, for the most part.

My one quibble with the book that kept me from absolutely loving it was that it felt incomplete, a little, at the end. There were still a few loose ends and I was disappointed that after introducing “Beauty and the Beast,” Haskell wasn’t going to actually finish telling that story. I would have loved a “5 years later” epilogue, but even better would be a sequel where Reveka finds a cure for the Underworld.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fairy Tale, Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Mistress Adina,” I said, “have you considered yew?”

“Yew!” She rocked back in her chair, sucking one tooth thoughtfully. “What for? It’s poison.”

“It’s been…it’s been known to raise the dead.”

She laughed. “I never heard that!”

I flushed. “I read it! In a book!” I had, though it was about a year before, in Moldavia.

And she laughed again. “Who taught you herb lore, Reveka?”

Overall Review:

The Princess Curse has a wonderful mythical-crossed-with-the-historical setting that I have come to love from Haskell (Handbook for Dragons Slayers has a similar setting), and I absolutely loved Reveka’s sarcasm. The combination of the 12 Dancing Princesses and Beauty and the Beast was highly original and really well done, but I wish that the end of the book didn’t feel quite so unfinished.

You can buy this here: The Princess Curse

Handbook for Dragon Slayers: Books Are Totally Judged By Their Covers

Handbook for Dragon Slayers is written by Merrie Haskell. It was published in 2013 by HarperCollins. Haskell’s website can be found here.

Summary/Blurb:

“Tilda has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess’s responsibilities.

When a greedy cousin steals Tilda’s lands, the young princess goes on the run with two would-be dragon slayers. Before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending magical horses, and battling flame-spouting dragons. On the adventure of a lifetime, and caught between dreams of freedom and the people who need her, Tilda learns more about dragons—and herself—than she ever imagined.”

What I Liked:

Right on the heels of a “rebellious” princess story that I actually liked comes another one! Tilda is rebellious not because it just seems to come naturally with the role of princess, but because a.) she’s afraid of what her people think about her and b.) she’s afraid that she can’t rule her people well. Give me that over random, no development, “I could never live that way!” statements any day. To make things even better, she recognizes that she has a duty, and she places that duty over her own feelings which she realizes were selfish, anyway. YES.

One thing that really stood out to me about this book was the cover art. If there’s any genre that does cover arts pretty well, it’s fantasy MG/YA. The cover art for this book is what got me to read it (and the interesting title).

Boethius is mentioned in this book! So is Plato! I’d never thought I’d ever see those two referenced in any MG/YA book, much less a fantasy one. But the world is pretty much a mythical old England, with references to those two philosophers plus mythology like the Wild Hunt and, of course, dragons.

I loved how over the course of the book that Tilda keeps running into people that are villains (or that she thinks are villains), but then realizes soon after that there are bigger villains then them. Hermannus, who is not a villain at all; Ivo, who is a minor villain; and Egin, who is the biggest villain. Although, perhaps the biggest villain in the book is Tilda herself, who starts out profoundly selfish and ignorant and then learns some great things about what ignorance does and is along the way (see my review of Black Beauty for additional joy over the dangers of ignorance).

What I Didn’t Like:

For all the great things in this book, I didn’t much care for the “main” theme, although I’m not sure whether it was the delivery of the theme or the actual theme itself. It seemed too simple of a theme for this type of book. But the emphasis on evil dragons versus evil humans was great.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: A bit of violence and scary images.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Passages/Quotes:

I felt the ice mask descend on my face, and the bands of iron wrap around my heart once more. Alder Brook didn’t love me, and I didn’t love them. If they truly didn’t want me to be their princess…

“You can have it,” I said dully.

I’d caught him off guard. “What?”

I swallowed against the weird lump in my throat—part anger, part a hundred other feelings I couldn’t even name. “Yes. Alder Brooke is yours. They hate me. They think I’m cursed….So. Take it.”

~Haskell 45

“All right then,” I said, and patted the silver mare. “How do you feel about the name Joyeuse, my dear?”

The mare snorted a little, and the earth suddenly moved up, down, and sideways rapidly. “What just happened?” I asked.

Parz and Judith were staring at me. Or rather, at my horse.

“I think your horse just danced,” Judith said.

I tried not to look smug as I patted the mare again. “Joyeuse is clever like that.”

~Haskell 135

Overall Review:

A book about a princess that I can actually fully get behind instead of partly hating the overused rebellious trope! Also made doubly awesome by the mentions of Boethius and Plato, and there are some great messages about ignorance and selfishness too. Plus, the cover art is gorgeous.

You can buy this here: Handbook for Dragon Slayers