[Book Review] The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

When plague strikes Bamarre, Princess Addie must fulfill an ancient prophecy.

Brave and adventurous, Princess Meryl dreams of fighting dragons and protecting the kingdom of Bamarre. Shy and fearful, Princess Addie is content to stay within the safety of the castle walls. The one thing that the sisters share is their unwavering love for each other.

The tables are turned, however, when the Gray Death leaves Meryl fatally ill. To save her sister, meek Princess Addie must find the courage to set out on a dangerous quest filled with dragons, unknown magic, and death itself. Time is running out, and the sisters' lives—and the future of the kingdom of Bamarre—hang in the balance.

This review contains spoilers that reveal some specific details of the story's ending.

Here we have a story that I think I might've loved had I read it as a child. Having read it for the first time as an adult, however... I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. I think I like it, but I definitely have some hangups.

The worldbuilding is interesting, though it definitely needed to be fleshed out more. The specters, I loved, and I would have appreciated if they'd had a greater narrative significance; they were a great creepy addition to a fairly typical fantasy story, and I would've loved if Levine had used them to bring a bit more of a horror flavor to the whole thing. The sorcerers were an interesting concept, but I don't think they fit especially well with the rest of the worldbuilding, at least insofar as it was explained to us, nor do they serve any significant purpose in the story. (To be perfectly honest, I would have recommended cutting Rhys and the sorcerers entirely had I been the editor here in favor of giving what little he contributes to the plot to other characters or plot devices.) The elves were... well, they were a problem. The elves were literally just a servant race, which... no thank you? That kind of thing always feels not-so-subtly racist, and I'm just not here for it. The gryphons were a fun inclusion, as were the dragons. The Grey Death, which more or less serves as the primary antagonist (unless it's Addie's cowardice), is rather boring; it doesn't even seem to be contagious, meaning that Meryl's contraction of it is inexplicable and that the stakes are pretty low for the other characters. I guess what I'm saying is that I think the worldbuilding of this 'verse is overflowing with potential, but that the majority of its potential failed to manifest.

Addie, the main character, is exceptionally unsympathetic at the onset of the story. Her primary character flaw is obviously supposed to be her incredible cowardice, but the narrative fails entirely to address that her actual glaring flaw is her unbelievable selfishness/narcissism. She holds a sway over her (much more interesting) sister that was undeniably disturbing--and familiar, considering I have similar narcissists in my own family.

Meanwhile, I was very startled by the revelation that Addie is sixteen years old during the story. Beyond the fact that the cover(s) of the book imply it's a story about preteen sisters, even within the story, Addie reads noticeably younger than that (I'd say thirteen at the most), which makes her "romance" with Rhys feel inexplicable verging on gross. (He's immortal, and she's decidedly not, meaning that their relationship is doomed from the start. Despite him claiming that he's the equivalent of a seventeen-year-old given his species's long lifespans, he's literally sixty years older than her. They have no chemistry to speak of, nor do they seem to have much in common beyond living in the same castle. It really seems like she just thinks he's pretty and he's impressed with her bravery, and so [they get married just to tack on an entirely unnecessary romantic HEA when there's already a perfectly good non-romantic happy ending. No thanks.)

As for Meryl, the older sister... Her plotline is essentially about her being robbed of her chance for adventure so that her sister can have character development, and honestly, I as the reader felt rather robbed of the chance to read about a much more compelling character. [It's telegraphed very early on in the story that Meryl will die before she gets to go on any adventures, which made me very wary of the story. This foreshadowing does pay off, though not quite in the expected fashion. Meryl does die before getting to have adventures, but in the moments of her death, she is transformed into a different form of being--a fairy, which in this story seems more like some kind of mythic warrior figure like an angel or demigoddess--who gets to have much grander adventures than she ever would've been able to pursue as a human. I'm more or less satisfied with that twist, given that it was vastly better than the "Meryl dies and her narcissist of a sister learns the value of not helicopter-parent-style abusing the people in her life" ending that I was expecting; on the other hand... I already felt robbed of the possibility of reading about the much more awesome adventures that Meryl would have had, and now you're telling me that she's going off to have these mind-blowing grand-scale adventures after the story's fucking over? But that's the interesting part of this universe! Why did I have to read about shitty Addie? Ugh.)

All complaining aside, it was a relatively fun fantasy story, and I can't pretend that I regret the time I spent reading it. Levine is a competent writer and a good storyteller, and I'll definitely be checking out more of her work; I haven't read Ella Enchanted in many years now, and I barely remember it, so perhaps I'll start there!

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