Yet another review of a book that I had seen before, but never picked up until I found a copy at the library. My hesitance to read Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Princess Ben involved the description on the book jacket (see below).
Benevolence is not your typical princess–and Princess Ben is certainly not your typical fairy tale.
With her parents lost to assassins, Princess Ben ends up under the thumb of the conniving Queen Sophia. Starved and miserable, locked in the castle’s highest tower, Ben stumbles upon a mysterious enchanted room. So begins her secret education in the magical arts:mastering an obstinate flying broomstick, furtively emptying the castle’s pantries, setting her hair on fire… But Ben’s private adventures are soon overwhelmed by a mortal threat to her kingdom. Can Ben save the country and herself from tyranny?
Note to publishers everywhere: Please stop telling me that the main character is special in your book jacket description. There is no faster way to make me put down a book than to insist that “Benevolence is not your typical princess”. Is she not a typical princess because she is clumsy, a little bit of a tomboy, kind of a rebel, and maybe not classically beautiful (but always still pretty in her own way)? That my publisher friends, is exactly what a typical princess in modern fairy tales looks like. Stop insisting that your princess is special and lure me in with an interesting sounding story so I can learn why the character is special myself.
That said, the beginning of the story held so much promise. Princess Ben’s voice, if a little whiny due to immaturity towards the start, tells the story well. The history of the kingdom down to the royal family’s symbol being a hedgehog was very interesting and I loved hearing about the mythology of the country, castle, and the mountains that protect it.
Princess Ben’s tactics to annoy her aunt (who in the first half of the novel fills the role of villain) are immature but lead to the most interesting part of the story in my opinion: Princess Ben discovering a secret chamber and teaching herself magic. Now if I had written this book, the rest of it would have involved her learning magic and then using her new powers to defend herself and her kingdom as she ultimately matures into the ruler the country deserves. Sadly that’s not what happened. The spoiler free version is that the book couldn’t decide on a plot, but for a spoiler-y version keep reading.
SPOILERS for the rest of the novel beyond the book jacket description follow.
Instead of a wonderful tale of a princess learning magic and using it to better herself and defend her kingdom, Murdock quickly casts this plot line aside and puts Ben in a position where she becomes a prisoner of war to the neighboring kingdom intent on conquering her own. This is when the novel went downhill for me. For one, the writing became much more passive, condensing time and giving us broad descriptions instead of detailed scenes. This is where the book first started giving the reader what I can only suppose were meant to be hints as to Princess Ben and the prince of the neighboring kingdom, Florian’s eventual marriage, but I didn’t buy it.
Which leads to the biggest failing of the book: Princess Ben and Prince Florian’s sudden and inexplicable romance. As we entered the second or third to last chapter, I expected to see the book draw to a close. Princess Ben (having escaped to her kingdom and learned her lesson) has proved that she is a capable heir to the throne after all and has reconciled with her aunt. Suddenly, she and Prince Florian get tangled in a dragon fight and despite feelings of mutual hatred only moments previously, Prince Florian dies professing his love for Ben. Weirder yet, Ben does a heel-turn and decides she loves him too (and then saves him with the kiss of true love). The remaining pages of the book are about how they married and are happy and in love. What? Had this been developed well, perhaps it could have worked, but there was little to no build up beyond Princess Ben’s occasional agreement that Florian is attractive. Literally pages before Princess Ben is thinking about how she wants to turn Florian into a frog and Florian is complaining that Ben is a witch. Besides that, Ben spends the whole book believing that Florian’s country is responsible for the death of her parents (which ultimately does get dis-proven) and that they are trying to conquer her kingdom (which they are. They attempt to invade and try on many occasions to wrest the throne away from Ben and her aunt). This, in addition to the sudden breakneck speed of the story, made the ending hard to follow and baffling.
Basically, the book couldn’t decide on a plot line and suffered because of this and a shoehorned romance. If you want something like what this book is trying to be, read Ella Enchanted or Dealing with Dragons instead.
Stay magical readers!