“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.” –Albert Einstein
Whenever I pick up a new young adult fantasy series, the first question I wonder to myself is, “How is this going to stand up to all the other fantasy stories I’ve read?”
Actually when the question forms, it looks more like this: “Is it as good as Harry Potter?”
The story of a boy wizard and his magical school paved the way for a generation of other fantasies: a boy who discovers that he is half Greek god and has to train at a special camp for heroes, a sister and brother whose grandparents manage a reserve for magical creatures, two young girls who get spirited away to a magical school for Good and Evil… I could go on, but there are quite a lot of them these days.
So is M.A. Larson’s story of a young girl training to be a heroic princess worth adding to your collection?
Yes it is.
Pennyroyal Academy is arriving on shelves at just the right time. Not only is the young adult fantasy genre still going strong, but there’s been a resurgence in the popularity of fairy tales. TV shows such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm are proving that while we may grow up, we don’t outgrow certain stories. Like children we delight to hear them again and again, told in different ways. Movies such as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and the underrated Hanna show that even action films aimed at grown men are not immune to the spell of fairy tales. Bill Willingham’s brilliant graphic series Fables has been bringing the old stories into our world for years, and is now moving toward its conclusion. We are in the middle of a newfound romance with fairy tales, and Pennyroyal Academy is its latest kiss.
The story follows a young girl with a mysterious past who is determined to enter the legendary Pennyroyal Academy and become a princess. But M.A. Larson’s princesses are not dainty delicate flowers to be waited on hand and foot; they are courageous heroes that are trained to take their stand in a perilous conflict that threatens their world. As she tries to navigate a world of princes, witches, and dragons, our heroine makes friends, enemies, and discoveries about herself that will change her life forever.
My favorite thing about the book is easily the likeable main character, Evie. She is the kind of protagonist that you root for. Serious and charming, she’s an outsider with an unusual perspective on the world and her fellow human beings. It’s hard to create a main character with some mystery to them, but Larson manages it with Evie. You will both feel that you know her, yet be surprised by her. She’s as solid and real a character as Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, and I found myself genuinely concerned for her, especially as more is revealed about her family.
Family is a major theme in most fairy tales, which were born in a peasant culture where family devotion and values reigned supreme. I’m happy to say that this book is very family friendly, something that could be shared between parents and children and enjoyed by both (Or single grown-ups that haven’t lost touch with their inner child).
There are strong themes of courage, love, and family that run throughout the book, and Larson does a terrific job of challenging the traditional way fairy tales paint step-families in a negative light. Evie’s family is shown to be complicated, and Larson shows us that’s okay.
The novel has some genuinely surprising twists—a couple of which I saw coming, a couple of which I did not. All of them were satisfying, but it takes a a bit of reading to encounter them. The second half of the story is definitely more interesting than the first, which is largely spent establishing the world and characters before the author starts playing with the things that you thought you knew.
There is some fantasy violence and scary moments, but nothing worse than what’s in Disney’s Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. This is a book that you could read to a child without blushing. And it is a fantasy, so expect some dragons and magic. Witches play a prominent role in the plot, but Larson’s witches tend to be more monster than human, more like Roald Dahl’s nightmare creatures than “good” characters such as Sabrina and Hermione. (There are several interesting questions that arise about the nature of witches by the book’s end, which I hope to see the author answer in the sequels.)
I do have a few minor complaints about the book. For a book that has the word “Academy” in its title, we don’t get to see enough of the actual classes in the book. While I love Larson’s Fairy Drill sergeant and his method of princess training, those scenes seem to fall in the background. Anyone looking to feel like they’re actually sitting in on a Defense Against the Dark Arts class will have to look elsewhere. Also, for a book with such a wonderful main character, minor characters don’t get nearly enough time to shine. Evie makes some cool friends, but they never get as fleshed out as I wanted them to be, which makes it harder to care for them at certain dramatic moments in the book. While these complaints do keep the story from being everything it could be, they don’t detract too much. Evie’s story is the heart of the book: her secrets, her family, her possible destiny. And she’s complex and loveable enough to carry the book. And to be honest, it’s hard to get a children’s book published if it is too long, so if the author chose to focus on Evie’s relationships in her family instead of her friends, I can understand. It’s the more interesting of the two stories anyway.
This is M.A. Larson’s first novel. Until now, he’s mostly known for his work in television and film, having penned some of the most beloved episodes of the cult sensation My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. So when it comes to writing about cool magical girls having adventures, I knew the story was in good hands. And I wasn’t worried about his dialogue-writing abilities either (though I’d like to see more of it between Evie and her friends). I was pleased to find that his actual prose writing is also very good. He paints a beautiful picture in words of his fantasy world and Evie’s inner journey. He can also be very funny when he chooses. (I actually laughed out loud a couple times while reading.)
If you like fairy tales (I’m looking at you, fans of the film Frozen) and you are looking for a family friendly fantasy read with a great heroic protagonist, enroll in Pennyroyal Academy. M.A. Larson gives us a world where becoming a princess means becoming a hero, and a main character you will want to cheer on throughout her adventures. Its beautiful story of family and self-discovery, adventure and friendship (and maybe a little romance), and the powerful message of love at its heart is sure to enchant readers of all ages.
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