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Friday, August 10, 2012

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, written by Christopher Healy with drawings by Todd Harris. Walden Pond Press, Harper. 2012. $18.99 ages 8 and up

"The Bandit King threw his arms up and rolled his eyes. "Jeez, how slow are you people? Money! I want ransom from your very, very, very, rich families. I'm sure they will all pay dearly to make sure their precious sons are returned to them safely. Or would you have me believe your parents don't want you back?"

Christopher Healy fills his first novel with a charming humor that is sure to attract attention and ardent fans. His story of the four 'Princes Charming' takes familiar fairy tales and turns them on their ear as he introduces the misfortunes that befall them on their way to trying to do what is expected.

The princes we meet are not exactly as we would expect them to be, according to our previous connections to their stories. They have gained fame in the stories through the bards from their various kingdoms, who appear to want to be seen as storytellers, not chroniclers of history.  The evil witch Zaubera has kidnapped the bards. The unfortunate result is that with no bards, the minstrels cannot laud the princes for their brave deeds. It is a catastrophe!

Together the four set out on a rescue mission. They want their bards back. Then, they must find and rescue Cinderella, another captive of the cruel and deceptive Zaubera. They are inept, argumentative, unhappy about their lot in life; the success of their mission does not look promising. In fact:

"If we were to peek ahead to, say, Chapter 20, we would see our heroes in a small mountain town called Flargstagg, sitting in just about the worst tavern in all of creation: the Stumpy Boarhound. The Stumpy Boarhound is the kind of dank and miserable place where pirates and assassins play cards while plotting their next despicable crimes (which often involve robbing the tavern itself).It's not the type of place you would expect to find even one Prince Charming, let alone four. And yet, in Chapter 20, there they all are: Liam, bruised and soot-stained, with fish bones in his hair; Gustav, in charred and dented armor, massaging his bald, bright red scalp; Frederic, covered with enough dirt to make you think he's just crawled out of a grave; and Duncan, with a big bump on his forehead, and that a nightshirt?"

This is not to be one of those quickly told, quirkily twisted fairy tales of picture book fare. Rather, it is a lengthy novel filled with jokes, appealing characters and plenty of action. The princes are not impressed that they tend to play a secondary role in their own stories. Readers seem to have more connection to, and affinity with, the princesses for whom the stories are named. That is very unfair to the princes whose role in incontrovertible to the outcome of the story. Each chapter and its title reveal exactly how unheroic the princes truly are. They want to clear their names, but difficulties prevent that from happening.

Cinderella, it appears, doesn't really need their help. She is managing quite well on her own. She craves adventure. Their quest runs the gamut of elements from known fairy tales: giants, dwarfs, a dragon, bandits, a witch in need of notoriety. It's great fun to listen in on their conversations and observations and to be party to the humor that Healy creates. The places they find themselves are sure to make readers shake their heads at the absurdity of it all. 

The four Princesses do not escape unscathed. They are definitely not those young women we have come to know from such beloved fairy tales as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Ella isn't particularly pleased with Frederic's habits and wants some excitement in her life. Gustav, in his desire to save Rapunzel from her lofty prison, is pushed from the tower, blinded and then saved by the woman he was trying to free. He no longer wants to be reminded of his failures and seeks another, more triumphant rescue. Liam doesn't much like Sleeping Beauty once she awakens and makes her true self known to him. Duncan has married Snow White; but married life is not exactly what he was expecting and he needs his personal space for a time. They are off!

You will be, too...should you choose to read this adventurous, fast-paced, often very humorous saga.

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