Friday, March 2, 2012

Princess of the Wild Swans by Diane Zahler

“Read this! Read this!” I look down at the beautiful renaissance-type artwork on the cover of Diane Zahler’s newest book that a 5th grader has shoved in my hands. What makes the students love her books? I know that one appeal is the cover, but I suspect that the stronger appeal is the inherent goodness of the teenage characters who are beginning to experience romantic feelings for each other. The stories are fast-paced and easy-to-read. They are not multi-layered but have plenty of action and innocent romance. I did find this book’s character slightly different from the previous two books. Princess Meriel in the beginning has more of an attitude and is spoiled as the only girl out of six children. She talks back to adults and needs to be the center of attention. At first I thought Meriel was going to run away because she complains about how her brothers get to do all the fun things like hunting and using swords and she has to learn to sew (guess I had the character from Trickster’s Choice on my brain), but in the end she isn’t bucking the princess role or female expectations, she embraces it and even tells her governess “she was right.”

This fairy tale adheres pretty closely to the original plot structure of Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Wild Swans, which makes it predictable in many ways: happy, wealthy family ends up with evil stepmother (witch) who wants the King’s kingdom; nasty mom turns sons into swans, tries to get rid of stepdaughter with curse; stepdaughter goes on quest to save brothers, has to sew shirts out of nettles, witch tries to stop her; lives happily ever after. Zahler uses this plot as her launching board and then puts in her own twists and variations into the story.

Meriel is not the pure character who prays to God like in Andersen’s story (the entire layer of religion and the evil Archebishop are not found in Zahler’s story), but instead, is outspoken and a go-getter. She knows right away that her stepmom is evil and she hates not having all of her father’s attention. When the stepmother tries to control Meriel’s movements by not letting her out of the castle, Meriel finds ways to sneak out. When suddenly Meriel’s brothers disappear and are sent to “school” Meriel insists something is wrong because they don’t even say “Goodbye” to her. She gets help from Cullen’s girlfriend, Riona, who is a half-witch. Riona instructs Meriel to not direct her thoughts at her stepmother which is how she controls minds and how Meriel’s father’s mind is being controlled by her stepmother. Riona talks to her mother, a witch who married a human, who instructs Meriel how to break the curse which is to knit shirts out of nettles and not speak a word to anyone.

Fortunately, Meriel can communicate with Riona and her brother, Liam, because they are half-witches and can hear her thoughts when directed at them. She also gets help from an unexpected witch but I won’t tell you who it is because it will spoil the fun surprise. Zahler has the evil stepmother in league with the “Faeries” and this part I found slightly confusing. The faeries used to dwell among the humans (some married humans, that’s how half-witches came into existance) but the faeries were forced by witches below ground because there was some cruelty going on that was never defined. The witches put a spell on the opening to Faeryland which is called the ”Faery spring” and the evil stepmother makes a pact with the Faery King to release the spell so the Faeries can rule over humans. The pact is the stepmother will marry a king and put her son on the throne releasing the protection spell so faeries can dwell and rule over humans. Meriel asks her stepmother why the heck did she pick a family with 5 sons instead of finding a king with no children?Ha! Good question. The stepmother replies that her father’s thoughts were only on her, the girl in the family.

The stepmother calls up a faerie to thwart Meriel in her quest and it is never shown how she does this or how she gets her powers. When the sons change into swan,s the Faery King, except he’s not called that I’m just assuming he’s the big honcho – he’s called an “onchu” which looks like “honcho” - decides the promise is broken between himself and the evil stepmother, but I don’t know why the witchy stepmother can’t try another spell to kill the sons since the king is bewitched. I think more explanations would have strengthened the storyline, such as making up that a Faery War occurred 70 years before because Onchu the Big Honcho wanted to rule the kingdom but he failed in his uprising; thus, causing the half-human, half-witches to force the faeries underground. I wanted the Faery world more fleshed out but that would make for a longer more complex story.

I thought the romance between the Prince Cullen and Riona interesting. The two want to marry but it isn’t allowed in the cast system with him being a prince and she being a commoner; however, when Cullen ends up being the human with the arm of a swan then it is okay for them to marry. They are both outcasts. She’s half-witch. He’s half-bird. It is not talked about but inferred in the story. I think it would be interesting to compare the original story with this one in a bookclub. There would be plenty to talk about!

Reading Level 3.9
:-):-):-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

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