by Gail Carson Levine
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Fairest / 978-1-934180-08-2
There is an entry on TV Tropes called "Idiot Plot", which is defined as a plot that is only possible because all the characters are complete idiots. With that completely unrelated tidbit in mind, let's go over the plot of "Fairest".
"Fairest" is set in a provincial little kingdom, whose humble and quiet subjects are abjectly and lovingly devoted to their wise and gentle king. When the exceedingly wise and clever king decides to marry a sexy young foreigner who is (a) literally less than a third of his age, (b) completely ignorant of the country's ways and customs, (c) not even remotely trained in the rudimentary concepts of leadership, and (d) utterly spoiled rotten, the wise king and his wise advisers and his humble people see absolutely nothing potentially wrong with this stellar plan.
When the totally unforeseeable occurs, and the extremely elderly king becomes incapacitated in an accident, it becomes apparent that this sweet provincial kingdom who has weathered its fair share of civil wars in the past, has literally never heard of a succession plan. The young queen - who has been married less than 24 hours at this point - immediately assumes the throne, forcibly disbands the parliamentary council, and starts to rule with an iron fist - a course of action that no one opposes because no one in this kingdom has ever had a teenage daughter before.
The protagonist against all this political intrigue is young Maid Aza. Aza, poor thing, is ugly - she's literally so ugly that guests at her adopted parents' inn will sit and stare at her for hours, fascinated by her intense ugliness. Seriously, she makes Quasimodo look smoking hot - and she will tell you again, and again, and again how truly ugly she is. (This is particularly helpful in the audio book version - if she just told you 99 times how ugly she was, it might not fully sink in; it's that extra 100th time that really makes or breaks the story.) How is she ugly? Well, she's kind of tall, and kind of wide, and her skin is ghost-white, and her lips are blood-red. She's HIDEOUS!!!
Ultimately, "Fairest" is a difficult book to enjoy, because the protagonist is distinctly unlikable. Apart from the constant, repetitive, excessive, repetitive, annoying - did I mention repetitive? - reminders of how "ugly" she is, she comes across as almost as selfish and spoiled as the Designated Villain. When people in the kingdom are starving, and Aza is being blamed for their suffering, she simply cannot take her mind off of an upcoming shopping spree; when the distraught palace staff start "pranking" Aza to get back at the queen, instead of explaining that she's on their side, Aza instead totally gets off on threatening the staff and making them grovel before her. It's hard to root for the Designated Hero, when she's just as unlikable and selfish as the villain - and the villain has been magicked up to the gills enough that it's almost easy to believe that her behavior may not be completely typical at this point.
We listened to this audiobook on a long trip; the box proudly proclaims that "Not one single sentence has been omitted!" but this is something I think they should have rethought. Since the kingdom in "Fairest" is a "Planet of Hats" where everyone sings constantly, someone hit upon the world-beating idea of making a musical out of this story. The voices are, for the most part, good - but the songs are boring and tedious - the repeated cleaning songs, bathtime gurgles, and the like reminded me of the poetry of Grunthos the Flatulent and his twelve book epic 'My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles' - and we all know how THAT ended.
Bottom line, I suppose some young readers may like this book, but I found the protagonist so appalling, and the supporting characters so utterly stupid, that I found no enjoyment here.
~ Ana Mardoll
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