I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
This might sound weird, but I have to admit that what attracted me to this book in the first place was that almost every major character was a girl. (Oddly enough, the bad guys are all male, but that is totally beside the point--I do NOT mean to give the impression that this is a girls vs. guys thing, because it's not! --just a random thought that spontaneously occurred to me.)
I mean, as a girl who grew up constantly reading stories about boys, it shouldn't be too surprising that I'd eventually begin thirsting for validation of my own gender. Seriously. Andwithout the women-on-women jealousy that is so over-portrayed in media with female characters. That trope had already turned me into a thorough skeptic before I'd even entered middle school. Thanks very much for that, YA.
I'd read books with fairly balanced gender characterizations before, but I think Princess Academy is the first one I picked up as a child that was fully and completely female-centric. The main character is female, the best friend is female, the sibling is female, the mentor figure is female. All of them are flawed, with fully developed personalities, and with their own individual story arcs separate from the male characters, and play the most significant roles.
So as soon as I picked up I knew it was going to be heaven for me.
Childhood reminiscing aside, there were a lot of valuable lessons I took away from this book. The first and foremost being the power of knowledge. Miri is a unique protagonist from your average run-of-the-mill fantasy main characters in that her growth, rather than finding out she's *special* and *chosen*, happens through a process much closer to that of the real world: education. And here I wonder if Shannon Hale happens to have a rare knack for childhood introspection or something, because she portrays so accurately what it feels like to feel helpless all your life, and to finally be able to open your horizons when you finally have access to worldly information. I always feel such joy for Miri when she uses her skills in diplomacy to bargain with her tutor--she's felt all her life as she hasn't belonged, even if only subtly, and for the first time she can use her intelligence to actually make a difference, for herself and for her friends.
I can't really overstate how much more empowering this was than the much more common route of 1) finding a hot love interest, or 2) wielding a magic sword. For me as a kid, it meanteverything to be assured that the pursuit of knowledge was justified, even necessary. Because part of learning when you grow up is gaining the tools you need to command respect. You can't do that if you're ignorant of the world around you, regardless of how clever or intelligent you are. And gaining knowledge takes work. Miri is not a prodigy, and her years of illiteracy actually hampers her progress. She only succeeds academically through hard work, perseverance, and consolidating the sense of her own identity as well as what she wants in life, the goals of which are constantly conflicting and changing.
And the awesome thing about education? You can share it! With lots of people! Since when did we need prophecies about the Chosen One again?
I don't know. Recently I've started to get an obsession with stories that tell you that success comes from working together instead of relying on one special lonely hero. I think that kind of story tends to be much more realistic and inclusive, and it brings people together rather than trying to set them apart. And it doesn't have to come at the expense of individuality; Miri is unique in plenty of ways, in creativity and her ability to adapt and apply her knowledge to the practical aspects of life, including changing the economic state of her entire village. Such people exist, but they're special because of the way they affect and inspire the people around them, not because they're symbolically important.
Plot wise, this book is impressively put together. There are few coincidences, pretty much none actually, aside from the ending. Everything unfolds in a logical, continuous, and character-driven (should I say Miri-driven?) manner that makes it very easy to follow (and wonderful to reread). The pacing is neither slow nor fast, but for once I find it refreshing to find an author who feels perfectly comfortable with taking her time and letting the story progress at its own speed. And the setting! The descriptions of Mount Eskel, the princess academy, the atmosphere of the ballroom--all of it is done with near-flawless grace and consistency and perfectly combined with the depiction of culture: singing, dancing, "quarry-speaking," food, etc.
However, the part of this book that has and will always stay with me is the theme of education, and what women can do with it given the chance. I can't say enough about that. I'm not sure what inspired Hale to write about it because I've never seen it so well done before, but I am so glad she did.