Friday, May 2, 2014

Once Upon A Time, Dragons Used To Kidnap Princesses

Princess Ahira

Getting kidnapped by dragons on her sixteenth birthday was the best thing that ever happened to Princess Ahira.

After spending her life avoiding lectures and lessons, Ahira is thrilled when she is kidnapped and selected as a live-in-princess (Read: Servant) for a powerful dragon named Azmaveth. Her dreams of escaping royal monotony are dashed, however, when she realizes she will have to marry the prince that saves her. Tradition rules, after all.

Being a romance cynic, Ahira doesn’t consider marriage a fantastic future. So she decides to stay with Azmaveth until her brother, a prince, can sneak away from their kingdom to rescue her.

Life is interesting thanks to eccentric tenants of the dragon lands. As a live-in-princess Ahira meets Snow White and her seven dwarf uncles who have fallen asleep, Hanzel and Gretal who have locked an old woman out of her cookie cottage, and a miniature unicorn who has some pretty powerful magic.

However, there are a few negatives to Ahira’s new life. There’s Kohath, Azmaveth’s infuriating human steward; Azmaveth’s tendency to mis-make magic spells; Kohath; the ongoing epic battle between the dragons and the Valkyrie, magical warriors bent on dominion over magic; and Kohath.

Things get scaly when the dragons realize Azmaveth has unwittingly put their future in Ahira’s hands. If Ahira wants her happily ever after she’ll have to fight tooth and nail for it.

I admit, my main motivation for reading this one was to satisfy both the genre and key word challenges for April. However, I was also excited to read it after the description brought back memories of one of my favorite childhood stories, Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing With Dragons. With nontraditional princesses, intelligent dragons, and a few fairytale throwbacks, I eagerly dove in.

And soon wished I had just re-read Dealing With Dragons.

Princess Ahira may not be Somino's average princess, but she is definitely this age's average heroine. Strong-willed, possessing mild beauty and standard intelligence, she is every bit a rebel against conformity. Her main passion is doing anything her mother would disapprove of, which includes taking in sunlight, skipping out on classes, and cleaning. Since the first two are pretty much accomplished through her kidnapping, the last is basically all she does to pass her alone time. As heroines go, Ahira is the typical 'every girl' who everyone inexplicably loves through no merit of her own, but miraculously saves the day at the end to earn that undeserved praise. Aside from being a tired trope, this also has unfortunate consequences to the treatment of other characters, but I'll come back to that later.

The dragon that takes her in was far more intriguing for me. Azmaveth (I tripped over the name multiple times even in my own head) is an inventor of spells and is constantly experimenting on himself. At first he comes off as far too pathetic and whiny, reminding me at times of a Woody Allen role, but he eventually grows into a more self-confident and friendly character. He's also extremely accepting and appreciative of all of Ahira's work and quirks. Not that there's much to dislike, but it's still nice to see.

Kohath, Azmaveth's steward and bane of Ahira's existence, was the stereotypical guy who is too perfect it grates on you until you give in to his charm. Sure he's smug and vain, but he's focused solely on Ahira's happiness and safety, so that makes him perfect for her. Yeah, maybe, but I wished we had some personality to him. You know, outside of what he feels toward Ahira, or the jealousy toward any other guys in the vicinity. A bit cliché and bland, if you ask me.

So the main characters weren't the most interesting, surely the fairytales should provide some innovation, right? Unfortunately, the fairytales did little to help. It was mostly along the lines of, "Think you knew the story of Snow White and the seven dwarves? Or Hanzel and Gretel? Or even Sleeping Beauty? Look at these new, unconventional twists!" A fairytale reference lasted all of a page, sometimes even less, and then it was gone, never to be referenced ever again. I may have chuckled once or twice, but since they had nothing to do with the story at all, they felt more forced than anything else.

Which only added to the horrible pacing. Really, the story didn't know where it was going. Ahira is kidnapped, given to a dragon, and then spends 50% of the story wandering around aimlessly, cleaning, and getting to know Kohath and a few other minor characters. I found myself checking my progress constantly, hoping I was nearing the ending because nothing was happening. Eventually Ahira is clued in to a huge battle looming between the good magical creatures (dragons, unicorns, griffons, etc.) and bad magical creatures (valkyries, ogres, trolls), but very little changes concerning her day-to-day activities. Instead of fetching potion ingredients, she talks to other creatures, or fetches other potion ingredients. Not exactly riveting reading material.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, no "griffon" is not a typo. Well, it is, but not by me. This book is unfortunately riddled with typos. All but twice, the mythical beasts are called griffons (which are a type of dog) instead of griffins (the half-eagle/half-lion). There are other less common misspellings spattered throughout, maybe two or three per chapter, plus a rather prominent name mix-up where Kohath is accidentally named Azmaveth during a conversation, so buyer beware if you can't stand typos.

Now, I can get over a few typos here and there, but what irked me the most about this story were its women. The women in this book range from beautiful and stupid, to ugly and crazy, to beautiful and evil, with Ahira being the only sane/reasonable/good woman in all creation. I wish I were joking. The main villains are valkyries, women with magical voices that curse any who hear their song. Ahira meets one about halfway through the story and is appalled not only by her stupidity but her (GASP) short miniskirt.
As I stared at this valkyrie, I felt some of my fear and respect for enchanted beings drop. This valkyrie was wearing the shortest skirt I had ever seen paired with high-heeled blue boots and a short, blue blouse. Hardly the clothes of choice to be stomping around in a forest.
I dropped my flute and froze in terror of the miniskirt and the sword.[Chapter 9]
But bashing on 'promiscuously'-clothed women isn't enough, for there are the princesses to attend to. Three of Ahira's fellow kidnapped princesses are there basically to play up how great and unique Ahira is by comparison. I'd say they were stereotypical princesses, but that would be doing the stereotype a disservice. One does nothing but blabbers on and on about men who want to date her, one does nothing except make horrible art pieces, and one literally drools or sleeps all the time. But at least they're all good looking, which is more than the last princess has going for her. Not only is Cinders clearly paranoid and delusional, but she's also ugly.
I was dumb struck by her speech because she looked more like a cross frog than anything remotely beautiful—and I say that with the frankness of a girl who is no beauty herself. [Chapter 1]
Because it's okay to call someone an ugly frog so long as you're not a supermodel. Honestly, that last princess should consider herself lucky, because holding any beauty at all means you're stupid, shallow, and would be better off keeping your mouth shut. Basically, this book's mantra is "Beauty is usually a companion to stupidity."[Chapter 8] And this mantra is so important, they feel the need to repeat it again a couple chapters later. You know, in case you forgot the vast number of examples it had already provided.

But, you know the message wouldn't be clear if they didn't also provide examples of the opposites being true. If an ugly person was smart, clever, or at least useful, then all would be justified. No? Can't afford any ugly? Well, just throw in a tan princess and that will be just as good. No, really, check out Ahira's thoughts upon running into a random girl in the forest:
I instantly liked her, not because I'm a great judge of people or anything, but because she was quite tan, even more so than me. At home I had to listen to hours of lectures delivered by my mother that were usually titled something along the lines of "Proper Ladies Are Not Tan." So, whenever I met another sun-kissed female I felt a great bond with them. [Chapter 13]
You know, it's one thing to paint broad strokes on a message like, "Don't judge a book by it's cover," or, "Beauty is only skin deep." But writing an entire book to 'get back' at the beautiful people is just too much. Especially when it's targeted at younger readers. I can get behind encouraging girls to think outside of the box, not obsess about beauty, think for yourself and the like, but to unabashedly target all women outside the not-too-pretty, not-too-ugly median is just disgusting.

I know it seems like I'm ripping this book to pieces, but I actually don't hate this book. I think I'm more disappointed than anything. Really, if it had a couple more passes through some tough criticism, had some more polish to it, it probably would have worked out most of the issues I'm bringing up. Maybe I'm at a disadvantage of having read so much to compare it to, whereas its target audience may not have. But I have to call it like I see it, and at this point I don't see anything that would have me recommending this above other books in the same genre.

Overall, Princess Ahira was a cute story, but I found it sorely lacking. If you enjoy rebel heroines, cutesy fantasy, or are looking for a fluff story for a younger reader, then you might give it a try. No language or sex, and extremely mild violence sits this in the perfect range for middle grade readers. While I had a hard time getting over my own nostalgic expectations, a new reader may find this story much more enjoyable, so if you're at all curious about Princess Ahira, I'd say definitely download the free sample and see for yourself.

Approximate Reading Time: 4 hours