The stares are agony. People look at me, not as someone they may wish to know, but as a macabre curiosity, a freak that both intrigues and repulses them. Men hold their children tighter, fearing that the rumors may be true, and I have the power to harm their family. Beautiful women glare at me, feeling upstaged by the grandeur of my jewels and dress. The peasants worship or revile me, calling out their well wishes or ill will in equal measures. None of them want to look past the Masked Princess’s costume and see the girl underneath.
Recommended for fans of Gail Carson Levine. This was a sweet little read, it feels more middle-grade than YA, despite the romance and the ages of the characters involved.
We have a princess and a pauper. There is nothing terribly original about this book, but it has well-written characters of different personalities to whom younger girls will be able to relate. They're rather tropey for the genre, but I have no complaints. For the most part, I enjoyed the main characters in this book, and the writing did a fantastic job of evocating the girls' emotions and very distinct dispositions. The weakness in this book lies in the main plot and the many dangling loose ends. I am not referring to a cliffhanger, I'm referring to the fact that people whom I felt are significant appear in the book, never to be seen again.
Summary: The book is narrated alternately by Wilha and Elara, in first-person POV.
Elara is an orphan girl. She has never known a home other than that of her cruel foster family; she has to deal with a somewhat-wicked foster sister, a cruel, insulting foster mom, and an indifferent foster father who spends much of his time either drunk or else drunk in a gambling house. She is street-smart, she is well-educated, determined to wrangle every bit of education from her stingy foster family as she can get. She is spirited, and she is self-sufficient, learning at an early age that life is going to be crappire unless she stands up for herself. She is bitter, with good reasons.
Princess Wilhamina (Wilha) is the epitome of a spoiled little rich girl, also with good reasons. Her mother died when she was young, leaving a grief-stricken father who is determined that no one shall ever see his daughter's face. She is to wear a mask at all time. There has nary been a single soul who has seen her face, and the one servant who has seen her has mysteriously disappeared from her service. As such, there is an air of mystery around her existence. There is a cult surrounding Wilha and her mask. There are whispers everywhere Wilha goes. She is feared. She is reviled. She is worshipped.
But really, Wilha is just a sad, lonely girl, without a single friend, whose very own servants think poorly of her, whose brother cares nothing for her existence, whose father doesn't even want to look upon her face.
I am left alone with the sinking fear that has been my constant companion.
Because if my own father refuses to look at me, there must be something horribly wrong with me.
Wilha is about to make an very much unwanted marriage to the heir of a rival country, Prince Stefan of Kyrenica. Elara has just been captured by the King's guards. They are about to meet. How are the two girls connected?
And then Lord Murcendor begins to tell me a tale so unbelievable, I have no doubt it is true.
Setting & Plot: Nothing groundbreaking. It is a standard middle grade fantasy without magic. I liked the background given on the history of Galandria. I liked the growing display of prejudice and hate between Galandria and Kyrenica. It was always evident that the countries were on the edge of a very tenuous peace, and the conflict between the country's peoples and their hatred and prejudice among each other were gradually shown throughout the book. Each of the citizens of one country have unbased prejudice against the others, thinking of them as little better than uncivilized savages, dogs, and murderers.
The plot itself, as well as the progression left a lot to be desired. There were a lot of very coincidental events leading to the discovery of information that I felt was too accidental to be true. It is not a good plot device to have crucial plans overheard by the same person repeatedly. I make a lot of concessions for the fact that this is a middle grade novel, but even for this genre, it should not be assumed that the reader is stupid.
The plot seemed too hurried in parts, and just unbelievable in others. There were plot lines that were never followed through, and as I mentioned earlier, people just disappeared from the book whom I thought were going to play a bigger role. There were rather insignificant loose ends, but they bothered me, mainly because this book is geared towards a younger audience, it should be simple, it should be uncomplicated, and it should not leave dangling strings of plots. I have different standards for different genres, ok?
I know this is the first in a series, but it doesn't excuse the fact that the book feels incomplete.
The Characters: By far, Elara is the best thing about this book. Elara is the kind of heroine I have always loved in my middle grade fantasies, and she completely delivered this book for me. She is not a wilting flower. She is strong, neither obstinate nor stubborn. Her acts of defiance are sneaky, rather than outrageous. She just wants to live a normal life, she doesn't give two cents about power or money.
“Would you?” he asks. “If the opal crown was being offered to you?”
“I would have refused him,” I say. “Galandria has done nothing for me. Let someone else rule this wretched kingdom.”
She is bitter, it's true, and it is completely forgivable. Elara has had a crap life, and I do not begrudge Elara her frustration and anger at the life she has been forced to live. Elara is also understandably angry about what she is forced to do, she is unwilling to participate in a deceit involving Wilha, a girl she sees as weak, spoiled, and spineless. But Elara is a survivor, and she will do what she needs to do to live another day. And she does it so well.
Elara is just so freaking awesome. I loved her wit, I love her intelligence, her ability to blend in and to make the best of a bad situation. Elara is never perfect, but she makes do with what she's been given, as always.
I had a much harder time sympathizing with Wilha. Elara sees the princess Wilha as weak, and I rather agree. Wilha is scared, shy, and the opposite of the outspoken Elara. Elara berates her so many times, and I found myself nodding in agreement. I loved this scene, where Elara lays the smack down on the weak Wilha for her inability to see herself as anything but a victim.
You cannot know what it was like, being forced to wear the mask.”
“Forced?” A sardonic smile twists at her lips. “So they held you down and strapped the mask to your face every day, is that it?”
“Well, no,” I say, frowning, “But—”
“Did they starve you? Threaten to throw you in the dungeon? Lock you in your chambers?”
“No, of course not. But there were so many rumors. Of my ugliness. Of a curse. Even some people in the palace believed them.”
“Some people are idiots,” [Elara] snaps. “So what? You’re not blind, and you own a mirror. Obviously you must have known there was nothing wrong with your face.”
And to further add to my dislike, at the first chance she's got, she completely ditches Elara and throws her to the wolves.
The Romance: DANGLING PLOT STRINGS. It's not so much a love triangle here, because random people just freaking (I'm doing so good in not using profanity in this review. Must. Not. Stop. Now.) disappear off the place of the earth. The romance was sweet, but it was like...what happened to the other guys? Yeah, I know I'm vague, but it can't be helped if I don't want to insert spoilers. This book's plot just frustrated me so much.
There is kissing, but the romance in this book is quite sweet and very appropriate for a teenaged audience. There is no insta-love. Relationships take time to grow. It is really, really sweet at times.
Of all the words in this world, love is the most powerful of them all. It’s a word I can’t say. Not yet, anyway.
Not until I know it comes from the deepest, most sincere place in my heart.
Overall: Not on the same par as other fantasy middle grade novels, but still highly enjoyable.