Valiant by Sarah McGuire (ARC Review)

ValiantInformation

Goodreads: Valiant
Series: None
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: April 28, 2015

Official Summary

Saville hates sewing. How can she not when her father, the Tailor, loves his bolts of velvet and silk far more than he’s ever loved her? Yet, when he is struck ill shortly after they arrive in the city of Reggen, Saville must don boy’s clothes in the hopes of gaining a commission from the king to keep them fed. The kingdom is soon on edge when stories spread of an army of giants led by a man who cannot be killed. But giants are just stories, and no man is immortal. And then the giants do come to the city gates, two larger-than-life scouts whom Saville cunningly tricks into leaving. The Tailor of Reggen is the hero of the kingdom, the king promises his sister’s hand in marriage, and by the time Saville reaches the palace doors, it is widely known that the Tailor single-handedly killed the giants. When her secret—that she’s a girl—is quickly discovered by Lord Galen Verras, the king’s cousin, Saville’s swept into the twists and turns of court politics. The deathless man is very real, and he will use his giant army to ensure he is given the throne freely or by force. Now, only a tailor girl with courage and cunning can see beyond the tales to discover the truth and save the kingdom again. Valiant is a rich reimaging of “The Brave Little Tailor,” artfully crafting a story of understanding, identity, and fighting to protect those you love most.

Review

Valiant is a compelling fairy tale retelling, based on an original tale and featuring a strong female protagonist.  The story follows teenage Saville as she struggles to make her way independently in a new town and as she inadvertently becomes the kingdom’s champion while trying to help a friend.  Events quickly escalate as the people make further demands on her heroism and she becomes embroiled in both politics and battle.

As a take on “The Valiant Little Tailor,” Valiant stands out among YA fairy tale retelllings.  It does not rely on pure novelty, however, but fully takes advantage of its source material, crafting a female protagonist who is as loyal and brave as she is clever.  Many readers will doubtless fall in love with Saville as she tries her best to save her friends and the kingdom she quickly learns to call her home.  A bit of vulnerability and a stubborn streak round her out and make her realistic. The entire cast of characters is drawn with equal attention to complexity.

Of course, the love interest is alluring: bull-headed himself but tempered with kindness and wisdom.  He and Saville play off each other well and build true chemistry.  Saville also makes a number of unlikely friends, and they all exhibit a blend of personality traits.  No one in Valiant is at first what they seem—which may be entirely the point. The plot they all play out is equally entertaining.

There are several moments that are not entirely logical—times Saville chooses to spill vital information, ways she solves problems, etc.—but she gets a pass for being a teen without all the answers.  Also, character mistakes make for interesting action.  Only the first part of the story is heavily based on “The Valiant Little Tailor,” when the tailor tricks a group of giants.  The rest is McGuire’s imagination, and it leads to wonderful places of palace intrigue and giant/human politics.  A bit of kingdom history also plays a role, which McGuire manages to deftly weave into the book.

Overall, Valiant is a fantastically fun fairy tale retelling, replete with everything fans of the genre will want: a strong protagonist; a swoony love interest; a plot filled with tricks, fights, and intrigue.  Valiant is beautifully crafted and a pleasure to read.  Recommended.

Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross

Kill Me SoftlyInformation

Goodreads: Kill Me Softly
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: April 2012

Official Summary

Mirabelle’s past is shrouded in secrecy, from her parents’ tragic deaths to her guardians’ half-truths about why she can’t return to her birthplace, Beau Rivage. Desperate to see the town, Mira runs away a week before her sixteenth birthday—and discovers a world she never could have imagined.

In Beau Rivage, nothing is what it seems—the strangely pale girl with a morbid interest in apples, the obnoxious playboy who’s a beast to everyone he meets, and the chivalrous guy who has a thing for damsels in distress. Here, fairy tales come to life, curses are awakened, and ancient stories are played out again and again.

But fairy tales aren’t pretty things, and they don’t always end in happily ever after. Mira has a role to play, a fairy tale destiny to embrace or resist. As she struggles to take control of her fate, Mira is drawn into the lives of two brothers with fairy tale curses of their own . . . brothers who share a dark secret. And she’ll find that love, just like fairy tales, can have sharp edges and hidden thorns.

Review

Kill Me Softly is a thoughtful, romantic book that looks the darkness of fairy tales in the face and combats it with all their hope. The story follows fifteen-year-old Mira as she attempts to track down the secrets of her past—and discovers they are far more implausible than she ever dreamed. She, and many of the inhabitants of the city where she was born, are “cursed” to live fairy tale lives, following in the footsteps of princesses, heroes, or villains.

Those who follow Pages Unbound will notice I reviewed Shannon Hale’s Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends last Monday and complained about a similar story premise, explaining it did not make sense. Be relieved to know that Sarah Cross handles the “born to fill a fairy tale role” plot much more skillfully. It actually works in Kill Me Softly because the roles are random, not handed down from parent to child, and each character is only cursed to do something similar to their fairy tale predecessor, not relive their story verbatim. For instance, a “Snow White” will probably eat a poisoned apply and fall into an enchanted sleep, but she may be able to skip the part where she lives in an adorable woodland cottage with a bunch of dwarves. Or the Huntsman might decide to actually kill her. Oops.

Kill Me Softly, being YA, is also able to confront the darkness of the original Grimm fairy tales head-on. Cross discusses, not just the gruesomeness or violence that characterize many stories (like Cinderella’s stepsisters chopping up their feet to fit into the glass slipper) but also the dark mentality that being cursed into a role can bring. There are characters who are proud to be villains, or who use their curses as excuses to be terrible people. There are characters who are simply twisted, who want to kiss sleeping girls not because they are in love or just want to save them from an enchanted sleep but because, well, they want to take advantage. Fairy tales are not always pretty, and Cross makes sure Mira learns that—and then tackles it.

After learning she is cursed, Mira has a lot to think about: destiny vs. free will, true love vs. playacting, the bad parts of fairy tales vs. the good. Mira is spunky, and immediately enters militant mode, struggling against the idea that the most important parts of her fate, like whom she falls in love with, are predetermined. Some other reviewers have found Mira’s attitude disagreeable, which is understandable. Personally, I found it plausible, considering her situation. And when she butts heads, not just with the idea of pre-destiny, but with a certain irritating young man, I even found it funny. (And, again, believable. I don’t think I would take his consistent attitude without eventually giving back a bit of my own!)

Of course, Mr. Obnoxious turns out to be a potential love interest. The weird part: two other guys do, as well. We don’t have a love triangle in Kill Me Softly; we have a love square. All three guys are given an explanation for being suitors, and they are mostly good ones (not just some ridiculous excuse that Mira is just such a great catch that guys are always fawning over her!) There is no explanation, however, for why Mira falls hardest , in instalove, for the one guy who is clearly the worst pick. Fortunately, readers have the rest of the book, and two other guys, to encourage their hopes that Mira will change her mind.

Overall, Kill Me Softly is a stellar fairy tale retelling. It is original and modern, while maintaining the romance, magic, and darkness of its source tales. Cross will draw readers in with her fast –paced writing and biting dialogue, and then they will stay for the unforeseeable plot twists and the hope that Myra will find her happily ever after, in both romance and free will. Recommended.