Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review: Hero

This book was particularly hard to get a hold of. I'm not sure what is going on with one of my library systems but occasionally they'll list a book in their catalog which apparently they haven't actually received yet and it can take literally months for me to get an email saying it's on hold (I requested the fourth volume of Wandering Son around the same time, last December, and still have not gotten a hold of it, this isn't just me being impatient!). So I spent several months going "this idea I have for a story, did I really come up with it on my own or is that supposed to be the summary of Hero?" before I was finally able to double check for myself!

Hero by Alethea Kontis

Saturday was born into an usual family and she's tired of how she seems to be the only one who never goes on any adventures. But, as many people in her family have already found out, when she gets her wish it's not in the way she wanted and adventure is much more dangerous for both her and the people around her than she expected.

While this book and it's predecessor, Enchanted, are written in the same style with the same setting and characters I think it's really fascinating to compare just how different their stories are in terms of ideas used. Enchanted isn't so much a retold fairy tale as it is a mash-up of fairy tales which in and of itself is a bit unusual, it's much more common to see straight up retellings. I have seen it in other stories, such as the play Into the Woods and the tv show Once Upon A Time, and since that generally involves more creativity and ingenuity I tend to like it more than plain old retold stories, 80% of those are quite dull to start with anyway however. And whenever I see this idea it's always in a western story, I think most of the cases I've seen have even been American, it's an example of a trope that seems oddly culturally specific for no discernible reason. Which makes it even more amusing that all of the stories that come to mind when I try to compare Hero to another are all anime! 

In Hero which focus on the tomboyish Saturday who, despite her dislike of the more "feminine arts" of sewing and cooking, seems to be fairly comfortable with who she is (which is brash and headstrong, even here my closest comparison is "think of a shonen protagonist who has more bite than a heart of gold", she doesn't even have the "snarky sexiness" that you see in male YA leads so I can't make that comparison instead). She's mistaken for her long vanished, and presumed dead, brother Jack which mirrors the other case of mistaken identity, a young man whose been tricked into posing as a witch's daughter. While I can think of many cases of young women posing as men in YA (including Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series, I actually wondered if Thursday was supposed to be an homage to Alanna since she seems oddly similar in some ways) but I can't think of the last time I saw it as the other way around, especially given that Peregrine has apparently been stuck like this for decades. This of course means that it's Saturday who has to save the not-a-prince, true to form he gave up escaping years ago when it proved fruitless and has lost much of his motivation for living life beyond his day to day drudgeries, which makes this a throughly gender-bending story. Even the side characters contribute to it, we meet Saturday's sister Thursday who is a pirate captain fully in command of her own ship and well-respected by her crew with her husband conspicuously absent. Trix, Saturday's brother, plays a bit of a larger role in this book and has many qualities that on the one hand are very common to the elves and fairies of real fairy tales but on the other hand are often labeled more "feminine" these days, and it should be noted that no character feels fully "boyish" or "girly", all of them have traits from both and seem like rather well-rounded characters for it.

As I mentioned earlier, I can't think of another story, in western media at least, that's quite like this. I've seen "princesses are strong women who can save themselves and/or contribute to their own saving!" and "princesses saving other princesses" but never quite the girl saving the boy (save for The Snow Queen but I have yet to actually read a good adaptation of that, I've got one more lead however!). The set-up reminds me more of Revolutionary Girl Utena more than anything else but the dynamics of that story is completely different so even that doesn't quite work as a comparison. And so I must whole-heartedly recommend this story to people who like fairy tales and people who like YA since when a book surprises me this much I want as many people reading it as possible*.

*partially so that they can then be inspired and write even more amazing books like it or so I at least have people to talk about it with, in some ways it's a very self-serving thing.

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