Frogkisser by Garth Nix, 384 pp, RL 4
The fantasy novels of Garth Nix were a large part of my daughter's reading when she was a kid, in part because she loved fantasy but also because his works were widely praised. Somehow, I never got around to reading anything by Nix until now! And it was the high praise of YA author and editor extraordinaire, David Levithan, that made me buy Frogkisser! without a second thought. Levithan compared it to a favorite of mine from my adolescence, William Goldman's The Princess Bride. The comparison is apt, and I have no doubt that for a new generation of young readers, Frogkisser! will be their version of The Princess Bride - a book they will remember always, return to occasionally and, if they are lucky, the next Rob Reiner will make an equally beloved movie of the book.
In the kingdom of Trallonia, Princess Anya's favorite place is in the library with Gotfried, a librarian who had been training to be a wicked sorcerer before realizing it didn't suit him as he have "very little innate wickedness." Unfortunately, some of his practice left him uncontrollably turning into an owl when distressed. However, a curdling scream from her older sister, Princess Morven, sends her running to her aid -a frequent event as Morven is as likely to be screaming as she is falling in love with a new prince. Morven and Anya's stepstepfather, Duke Rikard, had turned her latest suitor, Prince Denholm, into a frog. Anya makes a sister promise to find Denholm and return him to Morven so that true love's kiss can transform him, but things go sideways very quickly.
After the death of Anya and Morven's mother, their father remarried. When their father died, their stepmother remarried, leaving them to be raised by two stepparents, or more often just one as she is a passionate botanist often doing field work. Duke Rikard is well on his way to becoming the most powerful sorcerer in the kingdom and leader of the League of Right-Minded Sorcerers when he sets his plan to take over Trallonia in motion. Like Goldman, Nix is a master at naming people, places and things in Frogkisser! My absolute favorite is the Royal Dog, more specifically one of the Dogs of the High Kingdom, and quest companion to Anya, named Ardent. Ardent is top of the list of names as soon as we are ready to add to our pack of two (Fortinbras and Artemis). The Royal Dogs possess considerable magic (and are also immune to magic), including one that allows to let humans understand them, if they so desire. Then there is Gerald the Herald, a group of wandering heralds who spread "news" and gossip, all dressing identically and posing as one person. And, of course, there is the ARR, or Association of Responsible Robbers headed by Bert, or Roberta.
Nix also plays with fairy tale tropes. Druids retire and become trees, shacking up with dryads. Witches are really just women who like to cook (in groups of thirteen) and sell their creations, however they do stop to put on fake hairy moles and anything else to uglify themselves and fit the stereotypical image. There is the Good Wizard, Snow White. A bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts, she has taken on the role from a predecessor and sucks on a "voice changing lolly" to give her a deep, bass voice and casts a spell that puts a snow white beard on her face that she often finds hard to remove. The Good Wizard also happens to have seven dwarves, however they are much more akin to the dwarves of Tolkien than than Disney. Frogkisser! is definitely a character driven book, and it's so hard not to list them all here (Shrub! the redheaded ARR in training who is turned into a giant, poisonous orange newt when trying to steal from a sorcerer known only as the Grey Mist. And Smoothie! The otter known as Champion Smooth Stone Oysterbreaker of the Yarrow River clan, transformed into half-human soldier for Duke Rikard, but part of Anya's band of questers after she surrenders) by the end of the novel this band of fascinating rebels brings the story full circle.
Anya's quest begins as one to gather the ingredients needed to make a fresh batch of Transmogrification Lip Balm (the blood of a retired Druid, a pint of witches', freshly plucked feathers of a cockatrice) but takes on much larger meaning when Bert tells Anya about the missing Only Stone and the Bill of Rights and Wrongs inscribed on it. Anya comes to recognize her privilege and responsibility, making for a deeply satisfying ending to a book that you really don't want to end.
For those of you who fall in love with Frogkisser! the way I did, there might be hope for a companion novel. As she is placing the twisted-gold-wire crown of Trallonia on Anya's head, the Good Wizard lets slip that she was once a princess, too. But, she says, "That is another story."
MORE BOOKS BY GARTH NIX!
My Next Read (or listen) :
Newt's Emerald A Regency Romance with a Fantasy Twist!
Source: Purchased Audiobook & Book