With this retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans," Zahler is becoming the go-to author for middle grade fairy tale retellings. (Well, Zahler and Jessica Day George!) Her previous outings include a retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" called The Thirteenth Princess and a retelling of Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" called A True Princess.
As in the other two books, our heroine is a tween, this time 12-year-old Meriel. She and her five older brothers are surprised when the king their father comes home from a journey with a new queen, coldhearted Lady Orianna. The lady is surprised, as well—in the course of her whirlwind (read: calculating) romance, she had not realized her new husband had five sons. This puts a cramp in her plans to have a son and put him on the throne. Orianna transforms the five princes into wild swans, and it is up to Meriel to save them. As you may recall from the original tale, this means Meriel must weave five shirts out of nettles before it's too late. (It's eleven brothers and shirts in Andersen's story, but this is a minor change.) In addition, Meriel must not speak a word while she makes the shirts. Here we see the princess preparing for the task:
I put on an old dress that Riona had outgrown, for she told me that the nettles would rip and stain anything we wore. Then we started out for the field. I felt the weight of my task heavy on me as we walked, and knew I was afraid. Riona had explained that we had to soak the nettles, so that their fine, stinging needles would come off, and then dry them, even before I began to spin. It seemed an endless series of labors, and the very thought of it wearied me. My days, I saw now, had been filled with play and entertainment, and I wondered why I had complained so about the simple tasks Mistress Tuileach set me. I did not know how to work. How could I possibly pick and soak and dry, spin and weave and sew, and do it all before the lake froze?
Rather than sending the princess to a foreign land and introducing her to a prince who wants to wed her, as in the original story, the author keeps Meriel around to continue challenging the witchy queen. Fortunately, there are other, nicer witches (or half-witches) around, and they help Meriel. Zahler gets past the silence thing by allowing Meriel to speak mind-to-mind with her allies. She'll need all the help she can get, especially since the author introduces a new threat—apparently Orianna has been wheeler-dealing with the fay. The ending may be a foregone conclusion, but it's nice to see how Meriel's struggle with the evil queen plays out.
Zahler's retellings are reader-friendly books for the 8 to 12 crowd with feisty tween heroines whose friends and pluck help them combat the forces of evil. There's a hint of romance for the younger crowd in each one, along with a more serious romance between an older prince or princess and a potential mate (often a worthy commoner). Recommended for fairy tale-mad middle graders, as well as for teens who prefer their retellings without violence and sex.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
This one has a really great premise—it's a Cinderella retelling set in a dystopian future, with Cinder as a cyborg! Cyborgs being people who are part machine and don't have rights because they are merely property, of course. Cinderella was adopted by her father, who remarried and gave her an evil stepmother and two stepsisters (one of whom is pretty nice). In a further world-building twist, Cinder lives in New Beijing, so we get details incorporated from the place's Asian heritage. Our story begins with Cinder working in the marketplace at her little repair booth when Prince Kai stops by and asks her to fix his malfunctioning android. He seems to be flirting with her, but she can't believe it. She does hide her mechanical hands and leg from him, not wanting him to look down on her.
The plot is rather complex thanks to an evil queen who rules the colony on the moon. The Lunars have mind-controlling powers similar to fairy glamour in the old tales, which makes them even more dangerous. Warmongering Queen Levana threatens to destroy the Earth if Kai doesn't marry her. Also, a plague is spreading across the land—and scientists are allowed to experiment freely on cyborgs.
Here are the first few paragraphs, where we meet Cinder:
The screw through Cinder's ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. Her knuckles ached from forcing the screwdriver into the joint as she struggled to loosen the screw one gritting twist after another. By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand, the hairline threads had been stripped clean.
Tossing the screwdriver onto the table, Cinder gripped her heel and yanked the foot from its socket. A spark singed her fingertips and she jerked away, leaving the foot to dangle from a tangle of red and yellow wires.
She slumped back with a relieved groan. A sense of release hovered at the end of those wires—freedom. Having loathed the too-small foot for four years, she swore to never put the piece of junk back on again. She just hoped Iko would be back soon with its replacement.
Cinder is a fresh approach to fairy tale retelling with some excellent world-building. Cinder makes a valiant heroine, and the low social status of the cyborg class is genuinely poignant. My only real source of disappointment is that the story doesn't wrap up on the last page. We get Cinderella's ball, but we don't get a happily ever after. Yep, we'll have to wait for the sequel (second in a total of four planned books, as I understand). Consider yourself warned!
Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
In Spotswood's alternate history, there really were witches during the time of the Salem Witch Trials, and they ruled the land with their powers until men rose up to destroy most of them. Now witches must keep their abilities hidden or the Brothers will punish them with imprisonment or worse. A nun-like group called the Sisters support the Brothers in their work. All girls have to choose or accept a husband or join the Sisters by the time they turn seventeen. In the meantime, they must attend church classes where the Brothers thunder against immorality, strong women, and magic, i.e., the power of the witches.
Cate Cahill has spent the years since her mother's death trying to keep her younger sisters Maura and Tess out of trouble. The problem is, Maura is getting increasingly restless. All three of the girls are witches, something they must keep secret. Take a look at Cate and her sisters, not to mention Cate's childhood friend, Paul:
"You're hopeless, both of you. Perhaps you ought to go and ask Elena about the proper etiquette for entertaining callers." I take Paul's arm and feel his muscles twitch beneath my palms. "A walk would be delightful. Please. Before I murder them both."
I mean to sweep out dramatically, but somehow the doorsill drops away and I lift my foot into empty air. I trip forward, narrowly avoiding rapping my skull on the hall table and destroying an heirloom vase that belonged to Great-Grandmother. Instead, Paul catches me. In fact, he holds me closer than is entirely necessary. I hear a titter behind me and spin around to see Maura, her hand over her mouth, shoulders shaking. Even Tess can't suppress a smile.
Lord help me, my sisters are evil and my best friend's become a rake.
Paul is back from the city and wooing Cate, but she finds herself attracted instead to a poor bookseller's son named Finn instead. A meddling neighbor introduces a governess named Elena into the household and Cate begins learning of her mother's secrets. Turns out there's a prophecy about three sisters who are witches, and the Brothers really want to stop it from happening...
This is quite the potboiler and fairly engrossing. It is also a book for teens, with some frank references here and there to sex and sensuality (e.g., passionate kissing leads to Cate's magic acting up!). Naturally, the story cliff-hangs in the final pages, so you'll have to look for a sequel to see what happens to our girl Cate—who is willing to sacrifice anything to protect her sisters. I have to say: This book reminds me a tiny bit of Stephanie Burgis's Kat, Incorrigible. If you take out the lightheartedness, focus on the oldest sister, and add witch hunters, that is.
Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell
I'm a Megan Whalen Turner fan, so maybe I just like stories about clever thieves, but Thief's Covenant is a good book in its own right. I will caution you that the author makes extensive use of flashbacks, which adds to the suspense but might irritate some readers just a tad. The other caution I have is that the book has a rather high level of violence and gore. It's definitely meant for teens (and adults)!
But let's turn to page 1 of the Prologue, where we discover a young woman named Adrienne Sati clinging to the rafters high above a room filled with people being slaughtered. Tears run down her face, but she keeps silent even after the murderers depart and the city guardsmen arrive. It seems they don't see her up there in the shadows. And Adrienne is about to reinvent herself once more, this time as a thief named Widdershins.
The Prologue takes place "Two years ago" and Chapter One starts off "Eight years ago." How did Adrienne come to be in that room, and how did she get out? More important, how did she wind up carrying her own pocket god named Olgun around the city?
Now Widdershins is trying to carry out a bit of honest theft undisturbed, but the city thieves' guild is after her, and so is the city guard, along with a couple of far more ominous villains. Somebody isn't happy that Adrienne escaped the carnage that terrible day. Couple all of this with a visit to the city from the high priest of the land's number one religion (basically the pope), and Widdershins is up to her neck in trouble.
The book is also pretty darn funny. Here's an excerpt that introduces Adrienne and gives you a small taste of the humor.
Hours later, the sun setting at her back, Widdershins wandered the crowded boulevard, whistling a jaunty tune. She wore a tunic of verdant green and earth-brown breeches topped by a green-trimmed black vest, a combination that made her look vaguely like an ambulatory shrubbery. Her chestnut hair hung in a loose tail, her rapier swung freely at her side (the intricate silver basket now reattached), and her coin purse overflowed with the smallest portion of the baron's liberated gold. All in all, the last couple of days had been magnificent, and she was determined to share her good cheer.
And, Olgun aside, the thief possessed only one close friend in Davillon with whom she might share it.
Some parts of the story use recognizable fantasy tropes. For example, the clever thief hero has certainly been done before. But Marmell's tapestry of plot threads is intriguing, especially thanks to his creative use of gods. Widdershins herself has dash worthy of the Scarlet Pimpernel and a bit of Gen's whininess and self-doubt. We even get a few city guardsmen who may remind you of characters from Pierce or Pratchett. I'm pretty sure you'll be cheering for Widdershins and her buddies every step of the way. I know I'm looking forward to Book 2. (And I'd like to thank Ari Marmell for actually ending the book! Hooray!)