Palace of Stone is a sequel to Shannon Hale’s excellent Newbery Honor-winning Middle Grade novel Princess Academy. You’ll definitely want to read Princess Academy first, and to avoid spoilers, you should read it before you read this review. So, if you haven’t read Princess Academy yet, go away and read it now. (Then come back, please.)
In Princess Academy, we met the poor hard-working uneducated families of Mount Eskel who survive by mining and carving linder, a valuable type of stone that they export to lowlanders. Their culture was changed when it was determined by lowlander priests that the next princess should come from Mount Eskel. To get the girls up to snuff, a “Princess Academy” was formed and all eligible Mount Eskel girls were enrolled.
(Here’s where spoilers for Princes Academy start. I hope those of you who haven’t read it yet are gone!)
Miri was one of the candidates for princess, but she wasn’t chosen by Prince Steffan. However, she did learn to read and write, to do math, and she learned a lot about commerce. She used her knowledge to help her village negotiate better trading terms for their linder, and Mount Eskel has prospered.
In Palace of Stone, Miri is invited by her friend Britta (the girl who was chosen to be princess) to come to the capital city and attend school at the Queen’s Castle. Peder, the boy she hopes to marry, will also be going to the capital to begin an apprenticeship with a master stone carver. As Miri travels to the city, she realizes that she is ignorant and rustic, and she’s worried about how she’ll represent her community. When she arrives, she not only experiences culture shock, but she discovers right away that the city is in a state of unrest and there are rumors of revolution. Soon she meets a boy named Timon who is eager to enlist Miri in the rebels’ cause. Miri is torn because the princess is her dear friend, yet she sees that the King and his nobles have been unjust as they lord it over the commoners and demand taxes and tributes that leave the people destitute.
Fortunately, Miri is studying history and ethics at her new school and her position as a student and a friend to both the princess and the rebels will give her the perfect chance to practice what she is learning. The problem is that this is not just an academic exercise. Peoples’ lives are at stake. If Miri speaks up, she endangers herself, the princess, many friends, and her community back home in Mount Eskel. It’s a weighty challenge for a teenager.
There’s a touch of romance in Palace of Stone, too, including a love triangle for Miri. She always thought she’d marry Peder, the sweet solid boy who just wants to learn to be a master carver and go back home to live on the mountain. He represents home for Miri. But Timon, who is kind, educated, well-traveled, and wants to make the world a better place, is equally appealing. Miri is torn between these two boys just as she is torn between her love of her mountain home and her desire to see and change the world. Miri’s romantic struggle is sweet and realistic but, while it takes up a lot of Miri’s thoughts, it’s (fortunately) not the focus of the plot.
Palace of Stone is an excellent Middle Grade story that will be enjoyed by both boys and girls, and by adults, too. It features strong female characters who make good role models for teenage girls. As with the first book, the value of education is emphasized while the importance of the usual “princess” qualities — especially beauty and femininity — are down-played. Even the importance of intelligence and wit is de-emphasized. Miri asks knowledgeable adults for advice and she struggles to solve problems by applying the lessons she has learned in school, especially from her studies of history and ethics. She worries about the ramifications of her actions and is not always courageous. She realizes that her motives, ethical standards, and feelings of bravery change depending on whether it is strangers or the people she loves who are suffering. Miri spends her time thinking about all these things rather than worrying about how her hair looks or what she’s going to wear.
Palace of Stone is an exciting and thoughtful story which I’ll be passing on to my young daughters. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I listened to the audio version produced by AudioGo and Full Cast Audio. It was narrated by Cynthia Bishop and a cast of performers. This was a wonderful 8-hour production and even included music and singing. I highly recommend it.
The Forgotten Sisters, the third PRINCESS ACADEMY book, comes out in a couple of weeks. You can be sure that I’ll be reviewing it soon.