I'm really picky about the middle grade books I will read. They need to be smart, not talk down to the reader, and - perhaps above all else - funny. While the YA books I read and love can all be sorts of dark and depressing, I have found that I require humor in middle grade novels. The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom has it in spades, plus it's smart and well-written, so it's no surprise that I loved it.
The premise is pretty simple: we all know a lot about the princesses from our favorite fairy tales, but how much do we know about the princes? You know, those guys so vaguely-described that we just refer to them all collectively as "Prince Charming." Healy's book tells us the stories of four of these Princes Charming (note how the term is pluralized), and it should come as no surprise to you that they don't all live happily ever with their princesses. Some of them don't even live with their princesses, period.
The book begins by describing just what scrapes the princes have gotten into that have won them their princesses' disfavor. These events get all the princes cast out of their homes in disparate kingdoms and, naturally, they eventually run into each other. That's a good thing, too, since they soon discover that the bards of the various kingdoms have been kidnapped, and it's up to them to rescue the bards (and their own kingdoms in the process).
The standout feature here is, obviously, the humor. The princes are all goofballs of different varieties, and their characteristics are clearly exaggerated, but not so much that they become caricatures. The princesses, although they don't occupy a starring role, are also easy to differentiate and run the gamut from nasty to, well, charming. All the characters have large personalities, and when they collide, it creates an explosion of adventure.
Healy has a lot of fun with traditional fairy tale tropes, poking fun at what we as readers blithely accept in a fairy tale, even though it's patently ridiculous. He's also full of some great puns. A certain professional review felt that the premise grew thin and the humor old, but I couldn't disagree more. This is not a short book and I laughed my way through the entire thing - it's so clever and fun. It's a great read for kids who enjoy twisted or re-told fairy tales, particularly those told from "the other guy's" point of view. It's also a much-needed bit of levity in a fantasy field that is crowded with the dark and depressing.