Friday, January 4, 2013

Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

A new Shannon Hale book is always a treat. I've liked some more than others, but her writing is always so good. It's clear that she takes a great amount of care in choosing just the right words for the right parts, and her characters are varied and multi-faceted. 

Princess Academy was a great story, a bit of a throwback to the middle grade books of my childhood, but not so old-fashioned that it seemed stale or preachy. Palace of Stone is a solid, if not quite stellar, follow-up with a story that remains true to Miri's character.

Miri has traveled to Asland, the capital city of Danland, to study at the Queen's Castle, the city's preeminent university. She's gone with several of her classmates from the Princess Academy, all designated Ladies of the Princess, though she is the only one studying at the college. Miri is, of course, thrilled, but all is not smooth sailing. Trouble is brewing in Asland, and there's talk of revolution. Miri is torn between the "shoeless," who feel disenfranchised and stomped upon by the king and his administration's unfair policies, and the more "noble" of her acquaintances -  Katar, Britta, and Steffan - who are good people and may be harmed by what looks like an increasingly violent uprising.

It was nice to see Miri step out into a larger story. The amount of political maneuvering she must do - prodded by Katar and her newfound friend, Timon - is alarming, and she is sometimes so naive it's painful. Although she trusts in her books, her teachers, and her own creative problem-solving, there are no easy answers. I felt the danger much more here than I did in the first installment. While there were fleeting moments of danger in Princess Academy, here there's the possibility for real, unbridled violence, and Miri often seems like she's drowning.

If I have a criticism about the plotline, it's that it felt a little too pat. Without being too spoilery, I'll say that the way the story ended made me feel like this book was written a bit younger than Princess Academy was, although it's been several years since I read it. Perhaps everything is resolved a bit too neatly. Hale has created such a messy situation (which is to her credit) that the solution found almost beggars belief.

I did enjoy visiting with Miri's classmates again, although they remain mostly in the background. Peder is there, still being a bit infuriating, but most of the romantic focus falls on Timon, Miri's new friend whose twin goals are to incite rebellion and woo Miri. Every few chapters are interspersed with Miri's letters home to Marda, which provide insight into Miri's thought process and are a good counter to the third-person narration.

For fans of the first, this is a must-read. It's a different story from Princess Academy, but Hale knows her protagonist through and through, so reading this was like visiting an old friend again. Though it's not as strong as the first, it's definitely recommended.

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