Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Review of Thornspell by Helen Lowe

Fairy tale retellings are almost always done from the princess’s point of view, so it’s nice to read one from the prince’s perspective. Offhand, the only other book I can think of with a similar point of view is Alex Flinn’s Beastly, a modern-day retelling of "Beauty and the Beast." Of course, in the case of "Sleeping Beauty," the princess is out of commission for much of the story. Hence Thornspell, Helen Lowe’s retelling of the rose-covered fairy tale about an eerie hundred-year enchantment.

As a boy, Prince Sigismund reads stories of Parsifal and the Grail quest and dreams of becoming a knight-errant. Raised quietly in a castle on the west edge of the kingdom while his father goes south to fight a war, he looks out over a forbidden forest, wondering about the legend of a hidden castle there. Eventually he comes under attack by an enchantress calling herself the Margravine zu Malvolin, who appears at the castle gate and tries to enlist Sigismund to her cause. The boy barely escapes and becomes very ill, but he is helped by shadowy figures who appear to wish him well. Sigismund also begins to dream of walking through the legendary castle in the wood.

In response to the near miss, the king sends Sigismund a bodyguard and trainer named Balisan. The man is mysterious and powerful, and he seems to know a lot about magic. He introduces Sigismund to the fairy who healed him, the Margravine’s adversary.

In time, Sigismund journeys to the capital city and his father’s castle. There he is befriended by a smiling youth named Flor who, if readers are paying the least bit of attention, will immediately strike them as the back-stabbing type. Malvolin’s attempts to stop Sigismund from freeing the princess in the wood continue, but with the help of his allies and a magic sword, the prince ultimately triumphs.

Sigismund is such a likable boy, then hero, that I think you will enjoy spending time with him. The only thing I didn’t love about this book is something I’ve seen popping up a lot lately, and that is an obsessive need to explain every little plot point and bit of magic in detail, dialoguing it to death. Really, as long as a story hangs together, long explanations and swathes of backstory are simply a distraction. There’s a Hercule-Poirot-gathering-everybody-in-the-library feeling to some of the discussions in this book, is all I’m saying. (Of course, J.K. Rowling did it for pages with her ghostly Dumbledore near the end of Book 7.)

I’ll note that Balisan teaches Sigismund meditation practices to bring out his heritage of magical power. Again, I’ve seen this mixture of Eastern religion and European fairy tale magic in other fantasy I’ve read lately. Since our modern world is becoming a real cultural mix, I suppose such blendings are inevitable. I recently read a book where it was handled very badly, but Lowe manages to pull it off, mostly by making Balisan a magical figure from another land.

Quibbles aside, Helen Lowe’s Thornspell is an excellent addition to your library of fairy tale retellings—my favorite subgenre. Girls who like fantasy and fairy tales will want to read this one. And, while it isn’t a guy book the way the Alex Rider books are, boys who read fantasy should also like Thornspell, putting themselves in the place of good-hearted prince Sigismund as he struggles to defeat an old and evil adversary.

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