Princess Academy (2005) by Shannon Hale
Inside Jacket: High on the slopes of Mount Eskel, Miri's family has lived forever, pounding a meager living from the stone of the mountain itself. Miri dreams of working alongside the others in the quarry, but she has never been allowed to work there--perhaps, she thinks, because she is so small. Then word comes from the lowlands the king's priests have divined that the prince's bride-to-be--the next princess--will come from Mount Eskel. The prince himself will travel to the village to choose his bride, but first all eligible girls must attend a makeshift academy to prepare for royal lowlander life. At the school, Miri finds herself confronting both bitter competition among the girls and her own conflicted desires to be chosen. Yet when danger comes to the academy, it is Miri, named for a tiny mountain flower, who must find a way to save her classmates--and the chance for the future that each of them is eager to secure as her own.
Review: Shannon Hale has created a lushly detailed fairytale with Princess Academy. Her language flows like a true storyteller's and her imagery summons landscapes, people, and experiences as though she used a painter's brush.
Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house's stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day. (p. 1)
What I particularly loved was the way everything is described in terms of what Miri herself would know. For example, later in the novel, Miri says that her legs feel as soft and weak as two half-stuffed straw beds. Throughout, Hale uses original and evocative images while still maintaining the simple, straightforward writing style of old fairytales.
The other girls at the academy didn't necessarily get a lot of page-time, but as I was reading I definitely felt swells of pride, empathy, and anger toward them, so Hale did well bringing a large cast of characters to life.
The plot felt interesting and important, the romance was well balanced and believable, and it was delightful to see Miri really come into her own throughout the course of the novel.
Conclusion: 4/5. Well-written with a dynamic protagonist. Hale created a very detailed culture/community for her characters (she included tales they told every year at celebrations! Quarrying songs! Traditions!) Her characters were well-rounded and interesting, leaving me invested in their fates. If I were to change anything, it would have been the title because as my sister pointed out, "Princess Academy" sounds like a Meg Cabot book (which is fine, Cabot is great) but it doesn't convey the right feeling for this book. In my humble opinion, at least.