Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
Reasons for reading: I love Gail Carson Levine; Young Adult Challenge
Book description: "Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted to be pretty . . . Aza's singing is the fairest in all the land, and the most unusual. She can "throw"t her voice so it seems to come from anywhere. But singing is only one of the two qualities prized in the Kingdom of Ayortha. Aza doesn't possess the other: beauty. Not even close. She's hidden in the shadows in her parents' inn, but when she becomes lady-in-waiting to the new queen, she has to step into the light—especially when the queen demands a dangerous favor. A magic mirror, a charming prince, a jealous queen, palace intrigue, and an injured king twine into a maze that Aza must penetrate to save herself and her beloved kingdom."
First line: "I was born singing."
My thoughts: I usually love the first work I read by an author the best and I loved, loved, Ella Enchanted. But I enjoyed Fairest, too. This re-telling of Snow White has a lot going on - an abandoned baby, a chance to rise above one's station, beauty potions, ogres, gnomes (rather than dwarves), a mean (not quite evil) queen, a magic mirror, a handsome prince (with big ears) . . .
What I liked:
The book had a lot to say about beauty and self-esteem, and not just in an "everyone should feel good about yourself" bland way. The unkindness Aza faces because of her appearance rang true. I liked that the beauty potions were temporary - it wasn't a typical fairy-tale situation where the heroine is transformed by magic, she has to learn to accept herself. And even though Aza does come to accept herself somewhat, it's not a quick and easy change - she still feels it will take quite some time before she can smile at her image in a mirror. She also realizes that part of her problem has been that she believed what others thought about her and so she needed to accept some of the blame for the way she felt about herself. A classic lesson in overcoming a negative self-image. And while he botches it a bit, Ijori eventually convinces Aza that he loves the way she looks and always has, which is what everyone wants from their beloved.
I really liked that Ayortha was a kingdom of singers and that so much of the book was made up of their songs. I'd love to live in a kingdom like that!
The references to Ella and Frell that made Ayortha seem like part of a larger world and gave me a few happy thoughts of Ella Enchanted.
What I didn't like:
The whole magic mirror element was a great idea, but I found it rather rushed. It didn't seem as central to the Snow White-inspired story as it should have been. The mirror is mentioned a few times after Aza meets the queen and she does try to find out about it, but most of the explanation of the mirror's history, the queen's involvement with it, who the spirit in the mirror was (which I didn't find convincing or satisfying), and then Aza's vanquishing of it takes place in 2 or 3 chapters near the end and the real action is too quickly packed into only in a few pages.
Still, Gail Carson Levine is a wonderful author and I'd definitely recommend it. I'm looking forward to reading her latest, Ever.