Fairest – Gail Carson Levine

Fairest is essentially the story of Snow White, with a twist: Snow White is not pretty.  Yes, her hair is dark and her skin is white and her lips are red, but she is so unbecoming that people stare.  And (it is intimated), she is not slim.  But the other elements of Snow White are there.  She meets the Prince, the Queen is jealous, she is taken away to be killed by a woodsman, who has a change of heart and leaves her.  She ends up living with gnomes, being poisoned by an apple, and yes, there is a magic mirror.  All of these Snow White-ish details are buried in the details of the busy daily life of our heroine, Aza, adopted daughter of an innkeeper, a stunning singer in a kingdom of song, and an uncomely person who dares to love a prince.  All put together into a tale woven by none other than Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, a re-telling of Cinderella

Sound promising?  Don’t rush out and buy this for your tween daughter just yet.

Ella Enchanted is a book that (when I worked in a bookstore) I recommended to many, many, people.  (For the record, the movie sucks.  And yes, I usually like Anne Hathaway and enjoyed that recent Disney princess film).  Ella Enchanted is a fun book about a brainy, sassy, spunky heroine who does her best to get around her shortcomings (her main shortcoming being a birth-curse that forces her to do anything that anyone asks her to).  I own Ella, so I won’t do an in depth review here.  Suffice it to say, it had me looking for more Gail Carson Levine.

Fairest had me stop looking.  I picked it up in the library the other day as I was browsing for books to review.  Once I actually sat down with it, I realized that I’d already tried to read it and had written it off.  Levine takes her gift for description and then decides to write about a place and a person that seem like they should be interesting, but ultimately bored me.  Aza lives in Ayortha, a country where everyone sings everything, and musicality and voice are prized above most other qualities.  Songs for mending, songs for thinking, songs just for the sake of expressing how you feel at any given time.  Imagine being a songbird – I guess it would be kind of like that.  Sounds interesting, but written out it seems silly.  I don’t know why – it just does.  Aza is sad because although her voice is beautiful, her face and body are not.  People stare and say rude things to her, because she is that unattractive.  Apparently beauty is also prized above many other qualities in Ayortha and civility is not.  Somehow, Aza becomes a lady-in-waiting to the non-Ayorthan queen, falls in love with the prince, is accused of treason, banished to live with gnomes, poisoned and haunted by an evil mirror-dwelling creature.  Predictably, love conquers all and the book ends with a “song”.

Please.  I like fairy tales and happy endings (truly, I do) but I don’t want to wade through uninteresting semi-dramatic schlock to get to more uninteresting semi-dramatic schlock.  Read Ella Enchanted.  Read The Two Princesses of Bamarre.  Give Fairest a miss.

Worst moments: It’s so hard to decide.  What about:  I sang, “I would marry you this moment.  I’ll harmonize with you forever.” The obvious simile (metaphor?) makes me cringe – wouldn’t a country of singers have developed more sophisticated imagery than “I’ll harmonize with you”? Also, the thought of someone singing that makes me cringe/laugh.  And I’m the kind of person who invents songs about washing dishes.

Reading Age:  It’s a pretty thick book (326 pages) with semi-complicated ideas and lots of invented Gnome words.  The back of the book says “ages 8-14”, but I’m not sure I would have read it when I was 8.  I’m not sure I would read it at any age.  But I wouldn’t wade through the prose to figure out the story.  The schlocky princess-story may be more interesting to a non-jaded teen (i.e., not me).  So let’s say 10-14.

Rating: D

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