Levine, unhealthy as many readers of children’s fantasy know, is the author of Ella Enchanted, a Newbery Honor book that got turned into a wholly inaccurate movie starring Anne Hathaway. One of the minor characters in that book and movie, named Areida (played by Parminder Nagra), is the sister of the main character in Fairest — Aza. All that was a complicated way of saying, I suppose, that this book is a companion novel to Ella Enchanted, but not a sequel.
[Apropos of nothing, I have a cat named Ella. Not after the book.]
Aza is the adopted daughter of a pair of inkeepers in Ayortha, a country where nearly everyone has perfect operatic voices. Aza’s voice is possibly even one of the most phenomenal in the land, and she has an added skill — she can throw her voice. However, she isn’t particularly beautiful, and her looks certainly aren’t in fashion right now. She’s too tall, built too solidly, and with black hair, pale skin, and red lips. — Can anyone guess what fairy tale this retells? Yes, Snow White, of course. — Sometime after Aza is sixteen or so, she is invited to the capital to celebrate the marriage of the king to his queen, who happens to be a commoner from another country. The queen fakes a cold during the wedding ceremony, but as it turns out, she can’t sing — at least not like other Ayorthans. She is very beautiful, though, and somehow convinces Aza to sing for her, and throw her voice so it looks like the queen is doing it. There is a prince, of course — Prince Ijori, the king’s nephew and heir. Can Aza somehow pull off Queen Ivi’s request without getting everyone into a lot of trouble, and still win the heart of the prince, despite her lack of beauty?
The queen is the ‘evil stepmother’; there is a magic mirror, and dwarves, and apples, and all that, but the main story deviates from the fairy tale quite a bit. It doesn’t seem to me that someone who didn’t know the tale of Snow White could possibly be hampered by his or her lack of knowledge. (I assume there are people who don’t know Snow White, but I am certainly not one of them. Thank you, Walt Disney.) Obviously in Snow White, the main character is competing with the queen/evil stepmother to be the most beautiful woman in the land, and the stepmother truly is evil. The dwarves, in Levine’s world, are a complex and interesting race, not seven short guys with silly names living in the forest. I don’t remember a glass coffin or a dragon, but I could be mistaken. The conflict in Fairest seems to rest on a couple things: first, the Queen of Ayortha’s fitness to be queen, and what she goes through to keep her power; second, Aza’s self-confidence.
Levine uses what seems to be a decent knowledge of singing and classical music to create quite a culture around vocal ability. Courtiers have song contests; each of their ceremonies is based around singing responses. Nearly everyone appears to be able to make up a song on the spot, and the ability to do it well in a certain style — especially humorous — is greatly prized. The amazing purity of tone that Aza can produce is also highly prized; it’s what initially attracts the prince to her. Ayorthans often sing for no reason, and they keep birds around for their songs. The detail of this culture was one of my favorite parts of the book; nearly everyone dreams of being able to sing effortlessly, and reading about people who can I found delightful.
Aza’s struggle with her looks — although Ayortha doesn’t seem to be a country wherein everyone is naturally beautiful — forms the theme of the book. I won’t bother to describe her (internal) transformation, or how she struggles, because it seems obvious. It’s honest, though, and obviously heartfelt from the point of view of the character.
The book has surprising amounts of humor, and in some ways, is much richer than Ella Enchanted. The settings, culture, and characters run a little deeper than I remember from Ella. I do not mean to detract from either book, obviously, and Ella is the award-winner, but Fairest certainly does not suffer from sequel-itis. I quite enjoyed this foray into Ayortha, and although I doubt it will happen, I would enjoy visiting again. 4.5/5 stars.