by Gail Carson Levine
When plague strikes Bamarre, Princess Addie must fulfill an ancient prophecy.
Brave and adventurous, Princess Meryl dreams of fighting dragons and protecting the kingdom of Bamarre. Shy and fearful, Princess Addie is content to stay within the safety of the castle walls. The one thing that the sisters share is their unwavering love for each other.
The tables are turned, however, when the Gray Death leaves Meryl fatally ill. To save her sister, meek Princess Addie must find the courage to set out on a dangerous quest filled with dragons, unknown magic, and death itself. Time is running out, and the sisters' lives—and the future of the kingdom of Bamarre—hang in the balance.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre is one of those books I've seen so many people rave about as a childhood favourite, but it's one I never came across as a child. My earliest taste of Gail Carson Levine's work was in my last year of primary school when I came across a copy of Ella Enchanted in the library, but even though I liked it I never sought out any of her other books. Recently I was in the mood to dive back into Middle Grade, so I figured it was about time I picked up a copy of this one.
Had I read this when I was little I would have absolutely loved it and I'm pretty sure I'd still be looking back on it fondly now as a must-read fantasy novel for younger readers. As an adult reader, though, I didn't love this one as much as I was hoping. Obviously I'm not the target audience for this book but I do believe that a good Middle Grade novel should be able to be enjoyed by children and adults because children deserve books that don't talk down to them.
That's not to say I didn't like this book, because I did, but so I can end this review on a high I'm going to talk about what I didn't like first. One of my biggest issues with the novel was that it seemed to drag on for a long time for a novel that's really quite short, and I think this is a case where the blurb contributed to that feeling for me. We know from the blurb that Meryl is brave and Addie is not, but that ultimately it's Addie who's going to have to go on an adventure to save Meryl and all of Bamarre when Meryl falls sick, and I felt like quite a large amount of the book had passed before Addie had even come to the realisation that this task was going to be hers. I appreciated that we weren't thrown immediately into the action and we had a chance to learn about the sisters and their kingdom, but when Meryl fell sick the plot seemed to stagnate for me before Addie finally set off on her quest.
A lot of that probably also has to do with the part of the novel that most surprised me, and that's that Meryl and Addie don't remain children. We're introduced to them as children, but if I remember correctly it's not until Addie turns 16 and the Gray Death has already killed a lot of people in Bamarre that she leaves home. I love well-written child narrators, either in MG or adult fiction, and because this is a novel aimed at younger readers all about being brave and how being brave isn't the same as not being scared, I thought it was a shame they were given a 16 year old heroine rather than a heroine closer to their own age. Particularly because Addie and Meryl continued to sound a lot younger than 16 to me.
I can understand the logic behind Addie being a little older so that it's feasible that she would be allowed to go on her quest alone, except it makes no sense to me that a kingdom with one heir to the kingdom on her deathbed would allow their only other heir, who has no experience outside of the castle walls, to go on such a dangerous quest alone. I know it's a fantasy novel and we have to suspend our disbelief, but for me there's a difference between suspending disbelief and disregarding belief altogether. What baffles me is that Addie gets permission from her father to leave - I honestly don't understand how that man is still king, he's useless - when I would have found the whole scenario far more believable if she'd just snuck out instead.
All that aside, there's so much more I liked about this book. Firstly, any book that focuses on the love between sisters is a winner in my eyes, and I loved that even though she's a princess and heir to Bamarre Meryl starts out as more of a 'Prince Charming' in training with her love for knights, heroism and violence, but she's ultimately the princess confined to her bed while her cowardly sister is forced into that 'Prince Charming' role to save her.
Coward seems like such a cruel word, but it's the best way to describe Addie and that's no bad thing. Addie is terrified of everything, especially of not having Meryl around anymore to help her feel safe, so it's far more satisfying to see her face her fears as it would have been to watch Meryl. Addie has to learn to be Addie, and not just Meryl's sister. I personally loved that Addie was genuinely cowardly so, when she was brave, it was a very different kind of bravery to what Meryl's would be. Her friends give her various magical objects before she leaves so that she has some kind of assistance when facing all of the dangerous creatures that roam the wilds of Bamarre, all of which were so fun and imaginative, and I loved how Addie used them to both help herself and to fight and outwit her enemies.
Her greatest enemy in the book is a dragon who takes her captive, and while Meryl probably would have slain it at first sight (or tried to) Addie learns its weaknesses and eventually escapes the creature with her brains rather than her fists. There's a whole pantheon of dragons in fantasy literature, but this one is probably one of the most sinister ones I've come across and definitely one I'll remember!
I think what I enjoyed most about this book, though, was the ending. There's very little I can say without spoiling it completely but I think it would have been easy for Levine to give us a perfect, sunshine and daisies ending even though this is a story about a kingdom that has been suffering at the hands of a dreadful disease for years. Instead I thought she made some very brave choices and I really admire her for making them, and it's because of the ending that I understand why this MG novel is a favourite of so many people, particularly people who read it during their childhood.
Did I love it? No. Would I recommend it? Definitely.