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4.5 stars. Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
I just adore Shannon Hale’s PRINCESS ACADEMY books for young readers. The Forgotten Sisters, released earlier this week, is the third and final installment. This review will contain spoilers for the previous books.
In book one, Princess Academy, the first school was built in Mount Eskel, an uneducated rural mining community. The purpose of the school was to educate marriageable young ladies so that the prince of their realm could choose a fitting bride. One of the potential princess wannabees, Miri, wasn’t chosen to be princess, but she learned subjects and skills that she used to better Mount Eskel’s economic situation. In the second book, Palace of Stone, Miri goes to the capital city for more education and ends up quelling a revolution.
Now, in The Forgotten Sisters, Miri is about to return to Mount Eskel with Peder, the boy she loves, when the king and queen decide instead to send her to Lesser Alva, a backwater province, so she can set up a new Princess Academy. A neighboring kingdom has become hostile and King Bjorn hopes to appease him with a marriage alliance. There are three royal cousins living in Lesser Alva and it’s Miri’s job to get them educated and up to snuff so the foreign king can pick one. Miri bristles at the idea of an arranged marriage, but she negotiates with King Bjorn and gets a deal that satisfies her moral standards and will greatly benefit Mount Eskel.
When Miri arrives in Lesser Alva, the situation is much worse than she anticipated. First of all, the place is literally a swamp. She finds her charges — Astrid, Felissa, and Sus — surviving off the land without any parental guidance. Even if they wanted to be educated, which they don’t, they have no time for it because they spend so much time just trying to keep themselves fed. As Miri tries to help them fix their situation and do the job she was sent to do, she discovers that her communication with her friends in the capital and Mount Eskel has been cut off. While investigating, she uncovers ugly secrets and plots and realizes that her life is in danger.
As usual, Hale takes the unexpected route and delivers a children’s story that turns the whole “princess” thing on its head. Even though I knew Hale does this, I was still surprised by the originality of this story. The Forgotten Sisters is entertaining, adventurous, funny, touching, and optimistic (she even manages to redeem a villain from one of the previous stories). But what Hale does best is to illustrate (without getting teachy) the many benefits of a broad education and she shows that the act of learning is actually exciting and pleasurable. Miri’s charges discover that the more they know, the easier they can solve problems and better their lives. There were a few places where I had to suspend disbelief — especially toward the end of the story, which felt a little trite and rushed — but that didn’t bother me too much.
Hale’s writing style is always delightful. Each chapter of The Forgotten Sisters begins with some juicy little tidbit such as a silly song or sweet poem:
A honey bee, a funny flea, a pitter patter sunny sea
A breezy snow, a wheezy crow, a bitter batter easy dough
A teary hymn, a weary limb, a titter tatter cheery swim
A cozy yawn, a nosy fawn, a chitter chatter rosy dawn
Also included in the story are the lost letters that the characters write to each other that are never received when communication is cut off. They never get the benefit of these, but we do. Here’s the end of a letter that Miri writes to Peder. Notice the lovely metaphor:
… I am surprised by how much I miss a Mount Eskel winter. It is a relief not to be freezing day and night. But winter on Mount Eskel is a deep breath, an extra hour, a pause, little work and a lot of stories and songs. I miss you more than winter. You know that, but I want to say it again and again in case this is the time my words will actually reach you. I miss you, Peder. I miss you.
As with the previous books, there is a strong feminist message and this is my favorite aspects of the PRINCESS ACADEMY series. These stories should make young girls feel empowered to pursue education, make smart decisions, and unselfishly direct their own lives while considering the effects their actions have on others. I have purchased the series for my own daughters. HOWEVER, these books are NOT just for girls. My son, a football player, read The Princess Academy twice and loved it. The books are also not just for kids. Most adults will be just as enchanted and will appreciate Hale’s “message.”
Unfortunately, The Forgotten Sisters is being marketed as the last PRINCESS ACADEMY book, which is really disappointing. I rarely wish for a series to go on, but the last brilliant sentence of The Forgotten Sisters left me hoping for more. Perhaps Hale plans to revisit this world. I really hope so. Meanwhile, though, I’m happy to know that she’s got lots of writing projects she’s working on. Whatever they are, I’ll read them.
Mandi Lee narrates Audible Studio’s audio version of The Forgotten Sisters. This is a change from the previous books which were narrated by a full cast. I was a little worried about this change, but I needn’t have been concerned. Mandi Lee fits right in — her voice and delivery were perfect for Miri. I actually preferred this production over the full cast versions. It’s 7.5 hours long.