The Enchanted Collection
by Gail Carson Levine
Of course most of us have heard of Ella Enchanted. It was made into a 2004 movie starring Anne Hathaway. But the book has been around since 1997. I must admit that I did try to read it once before, years ago... and I just couldn't get into it. I have no idea why, because when I tried reading it again recently, I quite enjoyed it. I bought it as part of The Enchanted Collection, a boxed set of three paperback books by Gail Carson Levine. The other two books in the set are The Two Princesses of Bamarre (2001) and Fairest (2006). I honestly didn't know what to expect from either of them. Little did I know that one of those lesser-known novels would turn out to be my favourite of the three.
These are probably considered middle-grade books. There is very little violence, no bad language, and sex is limited to chaste kisses. I read mostly young adult and adult novels, but I enjoyed these three books all the same.
Ella Enchanted is the story of Ella of Frell, a high-spirited young girl who was cursed by a well-meaning (but rather clueless) fairy with the gift of obedience. If someone tells her to do something, she must do it... even if that something is chopping off her own head!
I watched the movie before I read the book, and aside from the curse of obedience and the names of the characters, there are really not that many similarities between the two. Ella is much more feisty in the book, always trying to find a way around doing what people tell her to do. The book also draws much more from the story of Cinderella. There are even glass slippers.
Because the book and the movie are so different, they can't really be compared. There were certain aspects of each that I preferred. Overall, though, I think that the book is worth reading and the movie is worth watching. If you go into either with no expectations of the same story, you'll be less likely to be disappointed.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre is the only book out of the three that is not based on a fairy tale. It tells the story of two royal sisters, Addie and Meryl. Addie is the younger sister, fearful of spiders and dragons. Her older sister, Meryl, is the opposite, brave and full of grand plans. When Meryl is struck with a fatal disease, Addie must gather her courage and set off to find the cure.
What I loved about this book were the memorable characters. Addie and Meryl are well-defined and likable; you want them to succeed. But some of the supporting characters are just as great. I especially liked the "young" sorcerer, Rhys. His background is mostly unknown, but the author does tell us that sorcerers are born when lightning strikes marble (how cool is that?). My other favourite character was Vollys, the dragon. I wasn't sure whether to hate her or feel sorry for her; the poor thing was obviously lonely. Then again, she kept eating her guests, so it was kind of difficult to really feel sympathetic.
This book ended up being my favourite out of the three. The only thing I didn't like were the ballads. They may have helped flesh out the story, but every time I saw another one on the page, I'd groan inwardly and race through it. (Fairest had the same issue with all the Ayorthaian songs. I just wasn't a fan.)
Fairest is based on Snow White (although it took me a while to realize it... the main character's dislike of apples should have been my first clue!). Aza is the adopted daughter of innkeepers in Ayortha (the kingdom next to Kyrria, where Ella Enchanted takes place). She is not beautiful by Ayorthaian standards and, in fact, doesn't even resemble most Ayorthaians, with her pale skin, red lips, black hair, and hulking size. But she does have a beautiful voice. Singing is a prized skill in Ayortha, and soon Aza is manipulated into "illusing" her voice for Ivi, the beautiful young queen who can't sing at all.
As I said, there are a lot of songs in Fairest. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the ballads added to the story, but in Fairest, I thought the songs kind of got in the way. Especially since they didn't rhyme (in English, anyway) and they had odd numbers of lines; I couldn't figure out how anyone could sing those songs!
But I did enjoy the Snow White parallels, and the final resolution is satisfying. I especially liked that Aza's "beauty" was not in her physical appearance, but in her skill as a singer. That was refreshing, since so many books for young people seem to elevate physical beauty above all else.