Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
Summary from Goodreads:
Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king's priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year's time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king's ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.
Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.
I was quite wary to approach this book because well, what variation can there be of a princess story? A destitute girl with a pure heart often maltreated by her family or her peers, rising to become a princess. You know, your usual fairy tale princess story. But I was surprised at how imaginative the story is.
The setting is on a village situated in the mountains. It was very idyllic and I liked how Hale was able to create that feeling of awe when you stand before a mountain. You can feel its vastness, like it has a life of its own. And that is exactly what Mount Eskel, Miri's hometown had. It spoke to her and listened to her as well as to the rest of the villagers.
The story spoke of a community with a culture that revolves around quarrying. How all the people in the village are intertwined and can communicate through a skill only they possess. I felt the sense of belonging just as one would feel whenever he/she is in his/her own hometown. I also like certain parts where language has taken a lyrical and rhythmic turn.
The main character, Miri although endearing enough, fall under the usual protagonist. A young girl who is neither pretty nor popular but intelligent and brave, one who isn't afraid to speak her mind. Still characters like this are always a delight to read, you'll never know what they'll do next and that is exactly what Miri is, unexpected. But what I liked most about her is that she hungers for knowledge and values it. She would be included in my list of bookish characters from novels. The rest of the girls in the academy have their own unique personalities which would always result in clashes but in the end, with them being bound together by the mountain and the quarry, they would always come together and stick with each other no matter what. And that was what they did when the bandits threatened them, different as they were and competitors as they were to the title of princess, they helped each other.
The academy was also another world altogether, completely different from their life in the mountain and it has thrown Miri and her peers into a loop. All that writing and reading and lessons on manners and poise, as opposed to quarrying, bartering, and tending to goats back in Mount Eskel. Inner conflicts started to arise in Miri, as to which is it she really wants. A life as a princess, living in a big palace in the lowlands and giving her father and sister a better life but that meant leaving her old life in Mount Eskel, a place which she holds very dear to her heart and is not quite ready to let go of yet. And then there's the thought of marrying the prince but what about Peder, a boy back in her village? The other academy girls also had their own conflicts like Katar and Britta to name a few.
The twists and turns of the story was not at all predictable, in fact I was quite taken by surprise as to who became the princess. All in all, a lovely story about friendship, community, family and the value to education. It deserves The Newbery Honor.