What are the odds
of reading two novels back to back, one about the princess of Montagne and the other a princess whose cousin is the king of Montaine?
And really, I think that’s what’s going to stick out to me the most about Princess Ben and Aurelia. Both books are enjoyable enough and good enough to finish, and while I will recommend them to teens who like this kind of book, they didn’t really do much for me.
I have to give Catherine Gilbert Murdock credit, though, for writing Princess Ben. It’s a huge departure from her previous two books, Diary Queen and The Off Season, and I have nothing but admiration for an author who is able to switch gears like that. In some ways, it’s a very successful change—the prose just sparkles, for example—but in other ways, not so much. The characterizations in Princess Ben never reach the level they do in Dairy Queen or The Off Season, and I say this as someone who didn’t get what the big fuss was until the second half of The Off Season (and I’m a huge football fan!), nor do the plot and worldbuilding stand out in any way. And as for the romance, because of course there’s a romance involved, I thought it mediocre at best.
Ben, short Benevolence, is the coddled only child of the prince (younger brother of the married but childless king) of Montagne. When the king and Ben’s mother are killed, and her father presumed dead, Ben becomes the heir to the throne. Nothing in her life has prepared her for this. At her mother’s insistence, the family did not live in the castle. Ben has had no training in any of the skills a future queen needs. Plus, she’s overweight, a problem Queen Sophia is determined to fix by drastically reducing the amount of food Ben is given. Ben’s problems appear to be solved when she discovers that she can move about through secret passages in the walls of the castle and figures out how to muddle through, or even better, get out of, her lessons without actually learning anything.
The problem with this is that the greatest emotion I felt during most of the book was sympathy for Sophia. Ben was selfish and self-centered, perhaps predictably so as a result of her upbringing, but by the time she came to her senses and realized that, hey, as future monarch of this country, she needs to know how to rule it, it was too late for me. At that point, I wasn’t reading because I cared about Ben; I was reading to find out what happened to the country.
Despite my antipathy towards Ben, the fact that I found the book somewhat enjoyable is a credit to Murdock’s writing. I’ve said before that I don’t mind unlikable characters, that I don’t need to like a character to like a book, and I still think that’s true. I realize that Ben’s growing up and maturing is the point of the story, but I never found Ben compelling enough to read the book just because of her (perhaps because the POV, of an older Ben looking back at these years of her life, implied that everything worked out so some of the tension was lost?), and as I said before, I didn’t find the other things that were going on particularly interesting, either. In some ways, I actually think this book is better suited for upper elementary readers than it is for teens. I don’t know about others, but I would have handled Ben’s selfishness better when I was younger, maybe fourth or fifth grade, than I would have as a teen. By that point, I would have been all, “What about your responsibility to your people?” like I am now. Not to mention that I probably would have found the romance more romantic.
Another thing I think I think, to quote Peter King, is that superficial is becoming my favorite go-to criticism, and it’s one of my two big problems with Aurelia. There’s a distance to the narration of Aurelia, which too often felt like mere observation, that kept me from becoming involved with the story. Anne Osterlund uses an omniscient third person narrative that describes the emotions of the characters more than it actually gets inside their heads. It’s not that I think the book would have been improved by a first person narration, because I really don’t, but that the characters aren’t fully realized as is. They’re like, I don’t know, actors or placeholders, there to fill a role and not truly Aurelia or Robert or Melony.
Still, I enjoyed Aurelia more than Princess Ben, largely because of the responsibility Aurelia felt for her citizens. She’s the princess of Tyralt, heir to the throne because her father, the king, has no living sons. Unbeknownst to her, she has been the target of several failed assassination attempts, so Robert, son of the country’s former royal spy, has returned to the capital to discover who wants Aurelia dead. Aurelia cares about Tyralt’s citizens, occasionally at some risk to herself, unlike her father, and most citizens feel she’d be a better ruler. Which is why the ending bothers me so much (big problem #2 [highlight to read]: you care about your citizens so much that after learning who wants you dead and realizing no one will be punished, you decide to travel?! WTF?). This is definitely a book I would have liked more with a different ending.
For some actual reviews of Princess Ben, head on over to: Abby (the) Librarian, The Compulsive Reader, Educating Alice, Em’s Bookshelf, Kids Lit, Kiss the Book, Read a Great Teen Book!, and Teen Book Review. And some Aurelia reviews: Dear Author, Kel’s Thoughts.