Anya is an orphaned young princess, about twelve or thirteen years old, and a bookworm (as many of the best princesses in literature seem to be). She and her fifteen year old sister Morven are orphans under the dubious care of their stepmother, a botanist who is enthusiastic about plants but completely uninterested in and uninvolved with the girls, and Duke Rikard, their stepstepfather (which is what you get when your stepmother remarries after your father dies). Morven is supposed to be crowned as the queen when she turns sixteen in three months, but she’s far more interested in handsome princes than in ruling. This suits Duke Rickard just fine: he’s a black-hearted sorcerer who’s intent on making his control of the Kingdom of Trallonia permanent.
Duke Rickard is also given to transforming unlucky servants and hapless princes into frogs. Morven asks Anya to do the dirty work of changing his latest frog victim, Prince Denholm, back into a human with a kiss (kissing frogs, even if they’re really handsome princes, is definitely not on Morven’s agenda). Luckily their librarian has a magical Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm that will reverse the transformation spell without the otherwise necessary ingredient of true love. Unluckily, Anya kisses the wrong frog with the last of the lip balm, and although that prince was happy to no longer be a frog, it does still leave Denholm in a frog-sized bind, and making more lip balm involves assembling several tricky ingredients, like a pint of witches’ tears and six pea-sized stones of three-day-old hail from a mountaintop.
Coincidentally, at the same time Duke Rickard announces to Anya that he’s sending her far away to a school for royalty, on a journey that seems likely to be fatal for Anya and leave Morven alone and in danger. Tanitha, the senior royal dog, tells Anya that she must leave the palace and seek help from others to defeat the Duke. So Anya embarks on a twofold Quest: searching for the elusive ingredients to the Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm, and also searching for those who can help to overthrow Duke Rikard and stop his evil plans. Anya is assisted in her quest by Ardent, a young and excitable royal dog; Shrub, a junior thief who’s also been shape-changed by a sorcerer into a huge, bright orange talking newt (two shout-outs to Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the price of one!); a Good Wizard who tries to evade her obligation not to directly help Anya; Snow White ― who is NOT what you’d expect ― and seven dwarves; and many others. Anya’s quest turns out to encompass more than she expected, as several people that she meets strongly encourage her to do even more to change their society ― in particular, to bring back the All-Encompassing Bill of Rights and Wrongs.
Garth Nix has a lot of fun with Frogkisser! (2017), weaving in various fairy tales and fantasies, both old and new, and twisting them in humorous ways. Besides the aforementioned Monty Python references, there’s a Robin Hood figure, Bert (short for Roberta, which is only a couple degrees of separation from Robin), leader of the Association of Responsible Robbers, who steal from the rich and give to the poor in time-honored fashion. I never read Lloyd Alexander‘s CHRONICLES OF PYRDAIN series, so it took me a while to realize that there was a shout-out to Gurgi behind the Wallet of Crunchings and Munchings that Anya is offered by the semi-helpful Good Wizard. And OF COURSE magic carpets have to wrap you up in a tight roll so you can hardly breathe don’t fall off them when they’re zooming around.
Frogkisser! is a little long-winded for a middle grade novel, but then winds up in an unexpectedly rushed manner. It didn’t entirely captivate me, and I never really lost myself in the story. But it’s a reasonably fun middle grade fantasy with some weightier elements. Nix pays attention to diversity: the Good Wizard, like Bert, is a dark-skinned woman; Snow White is an old man (nicknamed for his snowy white beard) who previously was known by another familiar name; the seven dwarves include three females. Nix also works some important life lessons into the plot.
Bert and Dehlia had planted the seed of thought in her mind, and it was growing away busily and putting out new shoots of thought, all of which were quite bothersome, because they were about things like responsibility and fairness, and thinking about others, and why being a princess perhaps should be about more than just having a nice library and three meals a day, particularly when other people didn’t have these things …
These periodic discussions of the previously unexamined privilege that Anya enjoys as a wealthy princess, her responsibility to others, and the need to recognize their rights, can get a little clunky and heavy-handed, but the book’s heart is in the right place.
Frogkisser! was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Award for Young Adult Book and is a current nominee for the 2018 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature.