This is an occasional column where I take the opportunity to highlight a “new favorite” book. This was a quick read, in part, because I took it everywhere I went, including the pediatrician’s office. I just didn’t want to put it down!
Audience: Read together 10 and up; read yourself: 11 and up
The Princess and the Hound called to me the minute I pulled it from the envelope. The cover catches your eye, and I found myself setting it face out on a very full bookshelf, glancing (okay, staring at it) as though it were a painting. I am happy to report that the story is as wonderful and as richly detailed as the cover.
SPOILER ALERT: The blurb on the back describes this as “Beauty and the Beast retold, but the Beast is a woman,” so you already have a sense of the story’s theme. Still, there are details in this review that might give away more than you want to know before you read it yourself.
Before our story begins, we learn about King Richon, a masochistic king who killed animals solely for the pleasure of hearing the “terror of the animal’s screams.” He would slay the animals and leave them to die, having no interest in eating their tough meat. One day a wild man appeared in his court, and after many attempts, finally confronted the king. The wild man demanded that the king stop these cruel hunts; but he would not. Several months later, King Richon killed a bear with one slice of his sword. During a celebration at the castle, all the forest animals and the wild man approached. King Richon ordered an attack, but lost. As penalty, the wild man transformed him into a bear, proclaiming “You will live as a bear until you understand what it is to be hunted. But there is hope…If only you will ask.”
In just a few pages, the author carried us back to the Middle Ages; a time when people were judged by their position in life and loyalty to their kingdom. Persons who committed crimes against property or men were dealt with harshly. Those who had the animal magic – an ability to communicate with and direct animals – were considered the most evil. Like the animals themselves, they were hunted and killed.
The legend of King Richon, artfully told by the author, is the catalyst and underlying theme of the story of Prince George of Kendal and Princess Beatrice of Sarrey. Their fathers – the Kings – have arranged this marriage as an effort to bring lasting peace to the two kingdoms, where border skirmishes and mistrust still exist after a long war. Both heirs have been raised without their mothers – Beatrice losing hers at birth, and George losing his at age eight. They openly describe their lives as children of men who were kings, not father, and they find they have a lot in common. Yet they share secrets in common, too.
Although the story is told in third person, the author gives you the eyes – and privileged position – of being one of Prince George’s servants. You visit the woods with him when the Queen teaches him about animal magic and the power of this gift he has inherited. You hear his inner struggles as he tries to understand – and suppress – his powers, both as a son and as heir to the throne.
The story is most truly brought to life, however, when you walk with Prince George, Princess Beatrice, and Marit, her hound. The author opens Prince George’s heart and allows us to share his joy (and frustration) of falling in love; and it is only through the prince that we come to know the princess. He serves as her defender, not only against her father and the citizens of Kendal, but also the reader. Prince George wants you to understand her for who she is and for what she has become. Like Prince George, Beatrice knew of animal magic. Not because she possessed the power, but because she had been transformed by it. Beatrice and Marit had changed places. Even though you knew George would be confronted with the idea of marrying a hound, the moment was so poignantly described it seemed new. Through a series of events – and a catharsis – Prince George decides to make a public decree about animal magic. His hope is to return animal magic back to something that was “thought of as no more or less than a gift of growing corn higher than others or having a way with a needle to make a fine dress.”
At the back of the book there is a Q&A with the author. She says she first intended to retell The Princess and the Pea, and that the Beauty and the Beast part of the story came about accidentally. She describes this as “an original fairy tale.” This is an original story that embodies all the elements of a classic: engaging characters who grow before your eyes and in your heart; a quilt formed by beautiful language, and the vivid detail that reveals incredible craftsmanship.
Like other modern classics, this story defies simple characterization. It can be fantasy or timeslip, adventure or romance. My fear in calling it a fairy tale or romance is that it will be dismissed. The story has a timeless element and is engaging for all readers … yes, including boys. Alas, a prince has proven my point: Dude Man (age 16) reviewed The Princess and the Hound for Book Reviews by Kids – May 2008 on Ken Baker’s website.
The author is working on a sequel, The Hound and the Bear, to round out this story and finish the story of the bear and the hound. You can read Chapter One on her website.