by Gail Carson Levine
"I'm not a Sir, but a serf,
And my enemy's worse
Than a knight ever cursed."
Aza is the ugly daughter of a kindly innkeeper and his wife. Her singing, however, is the most beautiful in the land, and the kingdom of Ayorthea is a land whose culture is saturated in song. When a duchess brings her to the palace to wait upon her at the king's wedding, the new queen takes a liking to her and asks her to be her lady-in-waiting. Yet, all is not as it seems, and Aza is ensnared in a world of lies and deceit. Will the temptation to become beautiful prove too much for her? What will the Queen do to her if she becomes the Fairest of Them All?
I had my doubts as I began this book. The sentences were short and uncomplicated and I felt like I was on a frequently halting train. The world felt contrived, and the protagonist predictable and annoying. I thought the book overly simplistic and puerile.
As I kept reading, I discovered I was very wrong. The story is delightful and enchanting! The culture of Ayorthea was irritating to me at first, but I came to love that everyone sang what they felt: snatches of song in conversations, Sings instead of balls, songbirds in the palace, healing sings for when someone is ill. It made me wish there was more singing and more poetry in our daily lives. It added a depth of emotion and meaning to what could have been a simple dialogue.
Aza herself always felt that she was ugly. She is described as having red lips, black hair, and pale skin, but in an unattractive way. She was also described as being very large. I couldn't help picturing her attractive, if self-conscious, particularly because the cover portrays her as such.
The fairy tale the book was based on, "Snow White," never overwhelmed the story's natural course. There were flavors of "Snow White" (the girl with red lips, black hair and pale skin, the jealous queen, the magic mirror, the plot to kill the beautiful girl, the flight to the dwarves (in this case, gnomes), and the rescue by the prince) but it was all wonderfully subtle. Very few things felt forced.
The love story was beautiful. The prince loves her at first sight, and supports her through her insecurities. It was a warm and fuzzy, yet unaffected romance. Even when they hit a rocky point, you know all will turn out well.
The villain, the evil jealous queen in this Snow White tale, is not really a villain, but an incredibly insecure woman who could have a good at heart but is weak, foolish, and selfish.
And lastly, the apple of the story is not dislodged from Aza's throat with a kiss, but with a good, hearty thump on the back. That pleased me to no end.
All in all, a solid sister to Gail Carson Levine's other book Ella Enchanted.
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