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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

I'm a little hesitant to classify Princess Academy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005), by Shannon Hale as Sword and Sorcery fantasy. The reason is that there is almost no magic in the book. However, it is set in a pre-gunpowder society, and there is at least one phenomenon inexplicable by our own technology. The book was a Newbery Honor winner, and the honor was deserved.

The title is appropriate. An official comes to the obscure mountain village of Mount Eskel to tell the villagers that the crown prince will be choosing his bride from among their eligible daughters. Twenty such young ladies, unable to so much as read, are sent off to an abandoned building several hours away, which, like the village, is on Mount Eskel, to be tutored. One of the young women is a "lowlander," not from the village, but has come there to live.

The protagonist is Miri, daughter of a widowed linder miner, and one of the girls sent to the academy. Everybody in the village is a linder miner. Linder is a stone, perhaps something like marble, that occurs only in Mount Eskel. When a deposit is mined out, the village moves to another location. Linder is beautiful. It can be polished, and holds its polish for centuries. It can also be carved. The villagers use it to trade for food and other goods -- they have little agriculture, partly because Mount Eskel is covered in snow for several months of the year.

The magic is that linder miners have to communicate over the noise of the mining, about details of how to access and remove linder from the mountain. Miri discovers, with help from her best friend, Peder, that this special communication can be silent, and can even take place over long distances, as long as the communicants are both in physical contact with linder. Until she found this out, the miners didn't know that much about their special communication, they just used it. What is communicated is shared experiences, not words, but choosing the right experience enables the sender to give suggestions on how to act. Miri is able to put her knowledge to good use to help the villagers.

There is a lot of discussion of the interplay between the 20 girls, and between them and their tutor. The girls also put their training in diplomacy, commerce, and other branches of knowledge, in ways that they, nor their tutor, expected. The character of the girls, and also of the tutor, and some of the miners, is well developed.

The village, and the country, have some religion, but it is not described, except that there are priests, and chapels.

I won't give away answer to the question suggested by the title -- who is going to become queen. I didn't see Hale's answer coming.

A good read.

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