I have a problem with romance in YA novels. I’m the first to admit it–almost the moment the “dreamy guy” comes into the picture, I consider a book substantially worse than I had the moment before. While there’s nothing wrong with it, I just personally don’t enjoy the style of romance in most YA novels, wherein only by exchanging glances, or worse, by exchanging only your darkest secret with someone, they become your soulmate. One author, however, excels at writing complex romances where personality and the factors of daily life do affect the relationship between two characters in love in a way that makes them more realistic and less of a turnoff for me personally. Gail Carson Levine, revered author of Ella Enchanted, wrote two books in the Bamarre universe, but Two Princesses of Bamarre is by far my favorite. It tackles loss, love, and realistic romance in a mature way while still sticking to the target age level. The female hero of the story is driven to her epic quest, and driven through it, by those forces, to save her sister and her kingdom.
I first read this book when it came out in 2001, and I’ll admit I chose it for its cover art, as I often did when I was 10. I didn’t realize at the time that the author was the same as that of Ella Enchanted, a book that I loved and a movie that I hated, but looking back, it’s very similar. In both stories, the hero faces a gauntlet of real dangers and practical problems without the ‘plot armor’ that you sometimes see in these stories, where it’s unlikely there will be blood or death because of the character’s purity of heart or immense luck. However this story, more so than that retelling of Cinderella by Levine, follows the conventions of an epic journey, like those of Odysseus and Beowulf. The story is actually strung together with verses from the fictional epic poem “Drualt,” about a mythical hero represented in the story of the kingdom’s founding. In a magical world constructed with a history and mythology which directly impact the fate of both princesses, Princess Addie makes herself and her mission a concrete part of that history and mythology in very unexpected ways.
Bamarre is a country torn apart by a plague called the “Grey Death,” which inevitably kills its victims over the course of three distinct stages–weakness, sleep, and fever (which proves fatal). The weakness can last any amount of time, during which the host can fight off the coming sleep as long as they can, but the sleep lasts nine days exactly, and the fever three. The country is also plagued by a number of mythical monsters–gryphons, dragons, specters, ogres, dwarves, and fairies–however it is also partially populated by sorcerers and elves (the fairies have not been seen for a long time, and people have come to believe that they may not have existed). When Princess Meryl, the stronger, braver, and fairer of the two titular princesses, falls ill with the Grey Death, Princess Addie recalls a prophecy that the Grey Death will end when “cowards find courage, and rain falls over all of Bamarre.” Cowardly though she is, Addie sets herself to the task of saving her sister’s life before time runs out.
Every time I read this book, I am frightened. It does not matter that I know how it ends. Addie and Meryl, and their friend the apprentice sorcerer Rhys, each face their individual struggles so bravely with expected futility, and it’s impossible not to empathize. When the story begins, we’re given a picture of Meryl and Addie’s childhood, playing out scenarios where Meryl quests to find the cure for Addie, the maiden stricken with the Grey Death. Addie is adamant that the illness can be beaten just by struggling against the lethargy that precedes the sleep phase, and promises to Meryl that she will never die of the Grey Death, in exchange for a promise from Meryl that she will not begin to hunt the cure until Addie herself is happily married. Addie is overcome with fear that Meryl will die on her future adventures, as Meryl is Addie’s ‘protector’–saving her from everything from shadows to spiders to social situations. But when Addie’s handmaid falls ill with the Grey Death, it stops seeming like a game to them, and Meryl’s desire to leave her sister and go to seek a remedy grows.
This is the moment where the ‘dream guy’ enters the picture, shaping a pillow from the clouds for Addie’s dying maid and complementing the embroidered works Addie has up around the castle. Rhys is a sorcerer, apprenticed to the royal sorcerer in Bamarre, and he, being a different species from her, is both fascinated by and alien to Addie, at first. Sorcerers in Bamarre are born when lightning strikes marble. They’re born fully grown, able to speak and fly, and they never fall ill. They don’t have to eat or drink, but can be killed in battle or by mishap. Otherwise, they live until they are 500, and die when the flame in their chest goes out. They are all tall, with dark wavy hair and white eyelashes, and usually never marry. As annoyingly typical as I find this immortal, youthful, handsome, tall, romantic interest, Rhys manages to divest himself from the trope by having a number of responsibilities and interests which he prioritizes equally, if not more heavily, than his romantic interest in the younger princess. Eventually, when his work brings him to the castle, he gives Meryl the gift of a sword, and Addie the gift of fabric and a needle. In return, Addie gives Rhys a work of embroidery, and Meryl offers to re-enact scenes from the epic “Drualt.” Throughout her performance, Rhys and Addie watch Meryl falter, grow tired, and eventually collapse. Despite her protestations, it’s clear that Meryl has fallen ill, and Rhys tries to tell Addie this, but Addie runs from him.
The King of Bamarre, father to both princesses, sets out to ask the Elf Queen Seema for a cure, despite having no evidence that she has one, and around the same time, Rhys leaves for a conference of sorcerer’s apprentices that is, for his species, mandatory. However, after a week, the King meets with Queen Seema and is told there’s no cure. He comes home, and gives up on finding a remedy, opting instead just to say goodbye to his daughter. Rhys warns Addie that Meryl has, at most, 19 days left to live, and Addie comes to the realization that if it were her who’d fallen ill, Meryl would already be questing for a cure. Before she leaves, and before Rhys takes off to the sorcerers’ citadel, he gives her a set of equipment to help on her journey. In the bundle he gives her are a cloak which will hide you completely if in shadow, a tablecloth which when given certain commands produces unlimited food, and a set of maps of the kingdom, and beyond. Meryl gives Addie her sword, named “Blood-biter” after the sword from “Drualt”; their elf-doctor Milton gives Addie “moily herb” which can soothe pain and help with illness; and their maid Bella gives Addie some common clothes, a backpack, a spyglass, and seven-league boots.
Pause. I have been obsessed with seven-league boots since the day I read this book. When Google Earth became a thing, I’d click around and pretend I was Princess Addie, journeying seven leagues with each step, leaving landscapes streaking behind. They come more heavily into play throughout the story, but I have always loved the concept that they present, and the danger. Wearing the boots, you can accidentally slam into a building, or trip and travel seven leagues that you didn’t mean to. Addie’s caution and creativity in their use, combined with the spyglass and maps, for me represent the perfect use of a magical tool in fantasy. It is not a deus ex machina, it cannot solve all problems and in many ways creates new types of problems, but can be incredibly advantageous if used by the right hero, in the right way, for the right reasons.
To return to the story – Addie, predictably, stumbles with her first step in the boots, and travels backwards 14 accidental leagues, slamming immediately into her first opponent: a large ogre in a party of four large ogres. He grips Addie and readies himself to attack her, when she uses the seven-league boots to smash him against a castle wall and escapes. All of this has the effect of introducing a few elements to her journey very quickly–enemies, pain, and quick thinking. She goes from hapless princess to adventurer in these moments, and in my opinion, her agony at dragging the ogre another 14 leagues and ability to only barely save herself distinguish this YA novel from others. Rather than an easy escape or an immediate ogre-concussion, Addie has to actually fight, aim, and plan while travelling faster than she ever imagined.
Rhys takes breaks from the citadel to visit Princess Addie on her journey, finding her through what we can only assume are magical methods. When Addie reaches the forest of the specters (precognizant gaslighting tricksters, who appear as loved ones or innocents to lure travelers to their death) Rhys visits her and tells her there is a cure hidden in the forest. Addie only realizes the trick when the real Rhys appears. Demanding a prophecy from the specter, Addie is told that dragons and fairies know the cure, and that dragons are easier to find. But unfortunately, a dragon finds Addie first. Vollys, a dragon who has been the scourge of Bamarre and whom Princess Meryl had hoped to one day slay. Vollys takes Addie prisoner and demands from her entertainment, which Addie provides in the form of her embroidery. Vollys has a system in which she gives gifts to her prisoners when pleased, and takes them away when displeased. The gifts represent how much longer the prisoner has to live. Addie exchanges weeks of her life for the story of the cure to the Grey Death while she watches Meryl’s condition worsen with the spyglass, and waits for her chance to escape.
Addie’s imprisonment with Vollys represents, to me, the perfect marriage of fairytale tropes and the uniqueness of this story. Princess Addie was the quieter, more reasoned sister, whereas Meryl would have been a warrior, and would have been roasted after quickly boring Vollys with fruitless attacks and little conversation. So while there’s a young princess being kept prisoner by a fire-breathing dragon, the hero who rescues her is not a knight in shining armor but herself, a shy girl who likes to sew and is afraid of spiders. And that’s the hero that is needed. A knight would have become charcoal in this fight, but Princess Addie is the right opponent for this enemy. Addie’s escape with the knowledge of the far-off cure, a magical fountain with water that must be drunk at the source, comes at the end of Meryl’s third day of fever, when she has until dawn to live. The battle to reach the falls is as good as any epic battle I’ve read in my life.
I couldn’t spoil the end of this story if I tried. Too many elements of the story come together to break and heal your heart simultaneously, but I will say that it does not end entirely happily, and that Princess Meryl keeps her promise to Addie to postpone her own adventures until after her sister is happily married. But while the kingdom is saved, nothing is the way you would expect it to be. I will admit to being furious with this ending as a young reader, having up to this point pretty much only read books where everything works out for the heroes at the end. As an adult I can see the genius in this ending, while still being crushed by it. The cowardly and fearful of Bamarre rise up to save their princess, and they save the kingdom instead. I remember being ten or so and crying, freaking out, and running to find my little brother when I finished this book, just to make sure he was ok. In a book that mainly features battles of strength and wit against physical monsters–ogres, gryphons, dragons–the real pain comes from something that exists in the real world; loss. And sometimes, like in the real world, it’s unavoidable, and the love which nourished you is the same love that causes you to hurt when it’s gone. But in a book with incredibly strong mythos to begin with, it’s immensely satisfying to see the characters join the fabric of history and myth surrounding their world.