Have you heard? Shannon Hale's latest book, Palace of Stone, is coming out in August! I am just a little bit excited. (And if I were 12 instead of 27, I could admit to being a lot excited.)
Palace of Stone is the sequel to Princess Academy, which won a Newbery Honor in 2006. It's been several years since I read it, but no one had to twist my arm to get me to read it again.
Miri lives on Mount Eskel, a remote territory of Danland where the only source of industry comes from mining linder stone. (Incidentally, from my limited research, it looks like linder stone is not a legitimate natural resource, but you could have fooled me.) Miri wants nothing more than to help in the quarry but is forbidden by her father. One day, the chief delegate of Danland arrives with the news that the priests have divined that the future princess will come from Mount Eskel, and so an academy is set up to prepare all the eligible young women to meet the prince. Miri is smart and determined but also struggles with feelings of self-worth, and so the story is as much about her discovering her potential as it is about impressing the prince.
If that summary sounds a bit dry, let me just add that there's also corporal punishment, dangerous bloodthirsty bandits, a little bit of romance (go Peder!), and a surprise twist at the end. See? Definitely not boring.
The villagers use "quarry speech," a method of communication where they basically send messages through the linder stone. They use it mainly to convey warnings and instructions while working in the noisy quarry, but Miri discovers that it can be used for other purposes. This detail gives the story a faint taste of fantasy without being over the top. As with the Books of Bayern, it is one little fantastical element that is so well described as to make it completely believable, making it the best kind of fantasy in my opinion.
If you've read anything by Shannon Hale, you know she has a way with words. Without being overly flowery or descriptive, she comes up with the perfect way to describe emotions, places, and actions. For example, when Miri is wrestling with how much she likes Peder but also how much she desires the changes in lifestyle the prince would offer her, it says, "Her mind and heart tangled." That's it. One little sentence, but instantly I related to how she felt.
At the beginning of every chapter, there is a little poem, what is supposed to be a song from the quarry. I absolutely loved these. They were all different, using rhymes and meters in different ways. My favorite one was: No wolf falters before the bite/ So strike/ No hawk wavers before the dive/ Just strike. Not only could I practically hear the quarry workers singing this song to help maintain the rhythm of their mallets, but Miri applied the song in a couple of other ways outside the quarry, and I thought it tied bits of the story together very nicely.
This might be considered a spoiler, so skip the next paragraph if you're worried:
I was so grateful that none of the girls or villagers died in the face-off between them and the bandits. Not even a minor character. Shannon Hale could have easily had one of the nameless characters die to add gravity to the situation, but somehow it would have felt so wrong to me. I read plenty of books where characters die (even important ones), but in this case, I felt like it was right to keep everyone alive (except for Dan, but he had it coming...).
The only thing I didn't love was the little twist at the end. I loved that it happened, but the details never settled for me, and it all happened too quickly. (What?! The prince just left after one night without asking any questions of Olana? What?! All of the girls are happy with the prince's selection and merrily traipse back to Mount Eskel?) I know I'm being vague, but I don't want to give anything away. If you've read it, I'm interested to know if you agree/disagree.
My only regret is that I wish I would have waited to re-read this book. Palace of Stone doesn't come out for two months. That's too long to wait...because, confession: regardless of whether I'm 12 or 27, I really am a LOT excited.