23. Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
Ella Enchanted remains one of my favorite books from childhood. Unfortunately, Gail Carson Levine has never matched it in years since. Fairest comes the closest.
Aza has dull black hair, pasty skin, and lips a revolting blood-red. She's spent years dodging insults while working in her adopted family's inn. She grows up in Ayortha, the neighboring country to Ella's Kyrria, but unlike Ella, she at least has a loving family and a singular talent. Like most Ayorthans, Aza has a beautiful voice, but unlike anybody else, she can throw her voice and make it come from anywhere, a phenomenon she calls "illusing."
One thing leads to another, and Aza is introduced to the beautiful new queen of Ayortha, who hails from Kyrria and well, has need of Aza's particular talents. The well-intentionedly malevolent fairy Lucinda gets involved and some events get rather gritty for a fairy tale, though it follows the basic story in the end (we're not talking Gregory Maguire gritty, but this is no Disney either).
The book is full of ditties, ballads, and the like that Aza and the other Ayorthans sing. I found the same feature in another, more realistic children's fiction book that I read recently, Louis Sachar's Small Steps. I'm not sure that I care for it in either. Though music is central to both stories, the books really seem to require soundtracks, as the lyrics alone are not generally compelling enough (Fairest may have one or two exceptions). As opposed to Tolkien's songs, which I adore, these ones are not poetry first and so it is hard to experience pleasure when reading, even if reading aloud in your mind. Levine's attempt to turn this book into a musical is a fascinating concept, but ill-suited for the format. I could see it coming off much better in a movie, and she may have one in mind.
My favorite part of the book was the greater delving into the culture of the gnomes. Gnomes, which are introduced in Ella Enchanted, get explored much more thoroughly here and play a central role in helping Aza. I don't know that I care for their silly language though.
Overall, Levine's world-building skills and usage of (non-invented) language are superb and fun to read, but her plots are easy to see through and her characters lack a certain originality that a non-fairy-tale-character might exude. I'll keep reading her, but I don't think this will be a book for my class.