Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review: PALACE OF STONE by Shannon Hale

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. 
Seven years after introducing young adults everywhere to Miri and The Princess Academy, Ms. Shannon Hale returns with its beautiful companion tale. Yes, beautiful. If any of you out there were worried about how Miri and her friends would be treated in Palace of Stone, you needn't be. Palace of Stone keeps the same simple, serene, almost fairy-tale-like quality of its predecessor while upping the stakes.

The story opens with Miri in her little cottage, just as it did in the first book. Only this time, instead of waking to anticipate a morning on the mountain, she anticipates the arrival of the traders who will bring the girls of the Princess Academy to the capital city for Britta's wedding. And they aren't the only ones going - Peder gets to go as well so that he can learn to sculpt linder. (Do you remember Peder? Miri's boyfriend? Gotta love Peder.)

But all is not well in the capital city, as Miri soon learns. There are whispers, hushed promises from lips thinned by hunger and anger. They speak of a revolution. And the revolution is focused on overthrowing the royal family, including Miri's friend Britta.

This may seem anti-American (I kid... mostly), but I usually abhor revolutionary plots. I really do. I think of the real-life French Revolution and my insides get all twisted. In a revolution, emotions run high and patience wears thin. Everyone always believes they're doing what's right, but what's right varies from person to person. And sometimes figuring out what's right falls by the wayside as people try to fix what they perceive to be wrong... or to seize power for themselves.

Miri, spunky thing that she is, manages to land herself in the heart of the revolution. It's partly by luck and partly by plot, for she's sent by the Mt. Eskel delegate to ferret out whose side Mount Eskel should take in case things go wrong. Choose the losing side, and all of Mount Eskel suffers.

He's not as clever as this Timon either.
So Miri plunges in headfirst, befriending those key to the movement, such as Lady Siesel and Timon, a particularly handsome young lad. Now, being a Peder fan and an anti-revolution reader (or at least an anti-twisty-stomach reader), my instinct was to push Timon off the side of Mount Eskel and be done with it. But, as always, Ms. Hale makes her characters just as they need to be. Timon is intelligent, passionate, and demonstratively interested in Miri, whereas quiet Peder hasn't even spoken to Miri of betrothal, though she's at the customary age. I can't say Timon was my favorite character, but Peder didn't help his cause any, and Miri was her normal, level-headed self. No Bella nonsense here.

Despite my hesitations over the different tensions in the novel (the romantic conflict, the possible revolution, the weight of various expectations placed on Miri), I found this book to be a refreshing change of pace from the normal grit that coats YA novels. You know what I mean. So many YA novels are all, "Yah! I'm YA! I'm real! I'm gritty! I have purposely sharp and crackling details that Make. You. Feel. So. Pumped!"

Both Princess Academy and Palace of Stone, however, have the wonderfully comforting feel of being wrapped in a fuzzy blanket with a cup of cocoa. It's a fairy tale. It may set my heart to racing (it did) and my stomach to twisting (it did), but I knew everything would be okay. The bad guys weren't really so bad, and not all the good guys were really so good. The only way I can explain it is that it felt like the story and the characters were gently being smoothed, rubbed soft like the edges on one of Peder's sculptures, and I liked it. It made me feel like I was gliding, if that makes sense. It felt innocent. It felt timeless.

Maybe some of the resolutions were too simplistic. Maybe the characters didn't have enough of the surprising, jagged edges that YA readers have become accustomed to. I didn't really care. You may keep your cynical, pulsing books for the moment. I'm happy in my fairy tale where love is certain, where home means something special, and where stone sings.

Points Added For: The utterly clever Miri, the heroine not always making the expected or politically correct choice at first (watch for the ocean and the painting), hope and optimism, fairy tales, the songs at the beginning of each chapter.

Points Subtracted For: Miri is a bit dense at times (even if she is clever).

Good For Fans Of: Fairy tales, younger YA tales (as opposed to mature, "gritty" YA), Shannon Hale books.

Notes For Parents: There's an assassination plot and the various talk of violence that goes along with all that, but otherwise this book is pretty tame.

Disclaimer: I won a free ARC from Bloomsbury in a Twitter contest.

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