I have fond memories of listening to the audiobook version of Gail Carson Levine‘s 1998 Newbery honor book Ella Enchanted. I think it was some time while I was in library school, and I actually remember specifically where I was going one day while listening to it in my car. (Is that odd, considering that this was about a decade ago, and sometimes I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday?) For some reason, though, I hadn’t picked up another of her novels until last week, when I checked Fairest out of the library. I think it seemed familiar because of Carrie’s recommendation, and based on my enjoyment of Ella Enchanted, I thought I’d give it a try.
In brief, Fairest is the story of Aza, the large and unattractive daughter of innkeepers in the kingdom of Ayortha. She’s smart and loved by her family, but those who don’t know her judge her by her appearance. Her saving grace is her beautiful voice, as well as a secret talent she has for “illusing,” or throwing her voice. A convenient chain of circumstances lands her at the palace as a noblewoman’s companion in time for the king’s wedding, and what follows is an adventure in magic, palace intrigue, and some philosophy about the nature of beauty and what makes one beautiful.
I’m going to be a little more critical than is my wont here now and say that I don’t think that this novel is particularly well-written or structured, especially compared to Ella Enchanted, at least as I remember it. Sometimes the plot of Fairest seemed a little poorly paced to me, and sometimes it seemed like important details were left out or under-emphasized. (Of course, this very well could be me and my aforementioned poor memory!) There was also a darker element to the story than I remember from Ella Enchanted. That, and the element of clean but mature romance in this story definitely places it more in the realm of young adult than juvenile fiction for me, although my library copy is marked JF on the spine. I tend to think books about teens–Aza is fifteen, I believe–are for teens, but maybe that’s just me.
All of those criticisms are not to say that I didn’t enjoy the story; on the contrary, I enjoyed Aza’s fairy tale world quite a bit. However, it did make me wonder if this is one of those stories that I would enjoy listening to more than reading. One of the hallmarks of the kingdom of Ayortha is that its inhabitants sing. Much of the dialogue in the story is sung, not said. I think this would make either a very entertaining or very annoying audiobook, depending on the quality of the singing. The gnomes in the story speak a very interesting language, and I spent a portion of my reading time each time a gnome speaks in the story just studying the words the gnome says. I remember something like this from Ella, and I remember that this was one thing that made the story so engaging to me. I usually feel like I’m missing out on something when I only listen to a story and don’t read it for myself, but this is one case where I feel like an audio version would actually enhance my reading experience, not detract from it. (Scholastic, 2006)
I know there are other fairy tale writers/re-tellers. I believe Robin McKinley’s Beauty is considered a classic by some. Are there others? What are your favorites? Which ones do you consider required reading?
Related links and reviews elsewhere: