Fun fairy-tale retelling for older teens as well as adults
Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: March 18, 2008
Pages: 400 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Ekaterina, “Katya” for short, is the seventh daughter of the Sea King’s fourteen children. Her father is a very wise man who has brought peace rather than endless war to his kingdom. He believes that all his children should have useful work to do based on their individual talents, rather than getting spoiled, lazy and causing trouble due to idleness. Katya can function equally well breathing air and walking on land and breathing water and swimming under the sea. Her father also gave her and all her royal siblings dragon’s blood, which imparts the ability to everyone who drinks it to understand the speech of all animals, and to a special few, including Katya, the ability to speak and understand all human languages. Because of these things, her father offered Katya the job of being his eyes and ears on land. The peace of his realm is not threatened only by events under the sea. Wars of aggression on the land can easily spread underwater, and he is determined to nip in the bud the destructive acts of magical villains before they get out of hand.
Prince Sasha is the seventh son of the King of Belrus, a small kingdom very near the Sea King’s domain. Sasha is known as a “Fortunate Fool.” In public he plays the part of a grinning idiot whose gift of luck brings peace and plenty to his father’s kingdom, but in private his family knows him for an intelligent, decent, caring young man.
In between missions for her father, Katya encounters Sasha, and it is instantly clear that both of these intrepid virgins (neither of them has ever been attracted to anyone else romantically before) are made for each other. But before they can fully cement their romance, Katya is kidnapped by an evil Jinn, and Sasha is determined to find her and do everything he can to aid her in the brave escape he is confident she is inevitably planning.
This is the third entry in the 500 Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey, originally published between 2004-2011 by Harlequin’s LUNA fantasy line. I had not read any of her books before stumbling on this series. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy these books as much as I have because I’d never before been a fan of traditional fantasy novels. For my own preferences, books in that genre tend to be over-long because of spending a great deal of time lovingly detailing the magical world at the expense of a central, character-based story. In contrast, LUNA books must inevitably be tightly written because that imprint has a standard word length of no more than 120,000 words. This requirement pushes participating authors to stick to the main storyline which, because this is Harlequin, is a paranormal romance, with a secondary action-adventure plot.
As a long-time fan of paranormal romance, this series provides a type of fantasy story I could definitely get interested in for the romance alone. But Lackey has provided me with several other major attractions. First, the series employs fairytale-retelling, which I’ve always enjoyed, and which is brilliantly done here. The concept of a world driven by a magical “Tradition,” which forces the people of the 500 Kingdoms to live out familiar myths and fairytales, is an enthralling choice for magical world-building because it is rooted in a universal truth of ordinary, human existence–all too often major, life choices are forced on us seemingly irresistibly by our upbringing, conventions of our local and national society, and by the options available to us in the era of history in which we live.
I constantly marvel at Lackey’s sheer creativity in the way that she mixes and matches elements from fairytales and folklore from around the world, resulting in comically incongruous fantasy mashups. In this book the emphasis is primarily on Russian fairytales, but we get a taste of other traditions, too, such as tales from Japan.
Speaking of comic incongruity, the second major thing I adore about the 500 Kingdom books is that Lackey is truly brilliant at subtle, witty, often laugh-out-loud humor in every entry in this series, including this one. I love comedy, and the intermix of fantastical creatures with both adventure and romance creates endless possibilities for humor.
Regardless of the genre of fiction I read, I always prefer character-driven stories, and Lackey’s series is totally character driven. Since this book is written for the adult, romance genre, we get to experience the dual points of view of both Katya and Sasha throughout the book. But because this book is based on fairytales, Lackey also from time to time moves into omniscient, storytelling, narrator mode, which works really well since that is the standard voice in traditional fairytales and strongly summons for the reader the mood of fairytales. In addition to the protagonists, the many subcharacters, both human and nonhuman, are vividly drawn and contribute tremendously to the story, while never upstaging Katya or Sasha, who are always compelling, every time they appear on the page.
Katya is a strong, sympathetic heroine whose missions for her father involve lots of flexibility, cleverness, and the ability to involve other people and magical beings in a team effort to defeat terrible villains. Sasha functions much the same as Katya, being assigned by his father, a king, to help protect his kingdom. Both have drunk dragon blood. Both are equally kind-hearted, valiant, and willing to risk their lives to defend the weak and those they care about against evil, magical villains. Both have been trained to understand and deal with the problems caused by the Tradition and are skilled at nudging it toward happy endings rather than tragic ones.
Sasha is particularly gifted at maneuvering the Tradition in two ways. He frequently does favors for people and animals, and as part of Sasha’s magical luck, the Tradition forces them to repay those favors, usually just when Sasha desperately needs help. Sasha also regularly engages in on-the-spot composition of songs that are easy for anyone to sing, which allows them to rapidly spread throughout his kingdom. The continual repetition of lyrics that communicate a desired outcome exerts a counter pressure on the Tradition, steering it into paths that keep Sasha’s kingdom safe and prosperous. It is fascinating to see a romantic hero whose weapons against horrible villains are not alpha-male battle skills, but rather his wit, big heart, and his magical luck as a Fortunate Fool.
For those who are reading the series in order, this is the third book, and it is fun to re-encounter two lovable, and quite amusing, talking dragons which are central characters in book 2, One Good Knight. We also meet again an extremely funny subcharacter from book 1, The Fairy Godmother, a flying “humpback” horse who is very clever but quite homely. In this story, as in every one I’ve read so far in this series, unicorns appear. Male ones are attracted to female virgins, and female ones are attracted to male virgins. They are utterly gorgeous, but completely dumb, and every time they appear, the results are hilarious, as in this book when–prior to meeting Katya–Sasha is constantly bombarded with their fawning attentions.
As is typical in actual fairytales, all the main romantic protagonists in this series are quite young, ranging from 16 to, at most, 20–in this book both protagonists are 18. Because of that, if it weren’t for several tasteful, loving, non-graphic sexual encounters between the romantic protagonists in this book–and similar scenes in most of the other books in this series–these books could easily qualify as Young Adult (YA) suitable for ages 12 and above. The author’s voice and tone are ideal for that genre. As it is, these books are definitely appropriate for teens 16 and older.
The books in this series as of today’s date are:
The Fairy Godmother
I read a Kindle re-issue of this book which is well formatted and well edited.
I rate this book as follows:
Fantasy World-Building: 5
Romance Plot: 5
Action-Adventure Plot: 5