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A True Princess


A True Princess

Diane Zahler's first novel, THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS, was a clever re-imagining of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," loosely basing a creative story on a lesser-known (but still noteworthy) princess tale. Now she does the same thing with A TRUE PRINCESS, very loosely basing her novel on the traditional tale of "The Princess and the Pea" but giving the story some important twists that make it feel contemporary to today's audiences.

It's not strictly true that Zahler's only inspiration is Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale; she's just as indebted to the Goethe poem about "Der Erlkönig," or "The Erl King," a menacing, ageless creature who haunts the forests and steals away human children.

Lilia has never felt quite as if she belonged in her family of shepherds. It's true she was adopted under mysterious circumstances, discovered by her adoptive father floating down a river from the north, tucked inside an oddly formed basket, wrapped in a blanket the color of the Aurora. When her dissatisfied stepmother threatens to sell Lilia to the local miller as a servant girl, Lilia knows it's time to make her way back to the North, to her people, whomever they might be.

At first Lilia relishes her solitude, but when her beloved step-siblings, Kai and Karina, catch up with her and join her on her journey, she's grateful for their company. The three young travelers receive lots of unsolicited advice along their way, paramount being the warning not to stray from the path on the way through the forest, lest they become entrapped by the evil Elf King.

I'm betting you can guess what happens when they do travel the forest path, but most readers would be hard-pressed to predict every one of the half-dozen or so plot twists that mark Zahler's narrative. Most surprising, perhaps, is that the primary romance plot doesn't even center on Lilia herself but rather on the demure yet lovely Karina. Lilia will find her heart's desire, too, of course --- but for her, the quest is for belonging, family and self-worth rather than (solely) true love.

Once again, Zahler offers readers a fairy-tale reimagining with an emphasis on the "imagine" part. She melds together several different traditions --- including not only Andersen's tale and Goethe's poem but also Norse mythology --- in a way that seems playful and clever rather than forced. Lilia is a strong, modern heroine who will appeal to a broad range of readers. It's unfortunate that the publisher continues to issue her books with ultra-feminine covers that make them skew younger than they could or should be. But wise readers will look beyond the cover and delight in the vigorous, inventive, imaginative narrative within.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 1, 2011

A True Princess
by Diane Zahler

  • Publication Date: January 31, 2012
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0061825034
  • ISBN-13: 9780061825033