Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sleeping beauties

Princess Benevolence is the sole heir to the throne of the small country of Montagne, but so far she hasn't been raised to be particularly royal. Her father (brother to the king) and mother have indulged her pretty thoroughly, although she's not unpleasantly spoiled. But one day, during a ceremonial outing, Ben's uncle the king and her mother are killed, and her father disappears. Montagne's menacing neighbor, Drachensbett -- which has long coveted the peaceful kingdom -- is believed to be responsible for the murders. The king's widow, Sophia -- appointing herself regent --starts a diplomatic game to keep Drachensbett at bay, and begins Ben's princess lessons (which do bear a bit of a resemblence to those of another princess ... except that Ben is a bit chubbier), grooming her for a probable match with the young prince of Drachensbett.

But Ben, in Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts is having none of it. In this extremely enjoyable slightly twisted fairy tale by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (author of our beloved D.J. Schwenk), Ben acts out in every possible way, until Queen Sophia banishes her to a lonely tower room. (Her hair does not begin to grow.) She's not truly imprisoned there, but she's got a lot of time on her hands, and one day she discovers that a bit of the walls of her tower room isn't -- in fact -- a wall; it's a door. A door to an even higher tower room, filled with dust, a broom, and a large book.

Ben soon realizes that this book is full of magic spells and she begins to practice creating the four elements: air, fire, earth and water. She goes on to discover that the castle of Montagne is riddled with secret passageways, which enable her to observe the castle's activities without being seen. Ben also learns to enchant and fly the broom. This comes in handy on the night of her betrothal ball, when she leaves in a rage and flies out her tower window. After a night of perilous flying (she's not really good), she lands on the upper reaches of Ancienne, Montagne's namesake mountain; and shortly after that she is taken up by Drachensbett's army -- camped out there in anticipation of the invasion. They think she is a boy. Soon, the prince shows up and, well ... you know how it's going to end, but it's a pretty engaging ride to get there.

Despite the familiar story, Ben's narration is witty and literate. She's telling us the story from her old age, and Murdock sets the right tone of bemused ruefulness at her adolescent high jinks and poor choices. I like re-interpreted fairy tales and this is a good one. I hope I'm not spoiling it to say that there are two sleepers awoken in this story, and neither one is Ben!

This book is read by the author and she reads with enthusiasm and affection for her story. Power audiobook listeners tend to view author narration with skepticism, but I enjoyed her reading. She never took that neutral tone that you can hear from many authors who read their own books. Instead, Murdock's narration reflected that tone of looking back with embarrassed fondness at her youthful foibles. Her speech patterns and vocal tone reminded me of Christina Moore, who has narrated a bunch of children's and teen audiobooks (A Girl of the Limberlost from YALSA's 2003 list, and -- in the spirit of this novel, Zel).

But then Murdock chose to get more elaborate and started creating voices for the novel's characters -- a variety of accents and differences in timbre emerged: French, Cockney, girlishly petulantly high (for young Ben), and deep and low for the king of Drachensbett. Alas, she couldn't keep it up. The vocal interpretations came and went, often in the space of a conversation. I was very disappointed. I lost focus on the magic of the story she had created through her first-person narration, and instead waited for the awkwardness to arrive. In Mary Burkey's visualization, Murdock's narrative choices kept a great story down.

I also heard a number of mispronunciations and a lot of dry mouth. But I think I could have overlooked them. Sigh.

On the good news front, Murdock's writing a third book about D.J. Schwenk! And before I let this go, it's always nice to see an author who can cross genres. Murdock simply knows how to tell a good story. What could be better?

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