“You see why so many in this kingdom yearn for change,” he said.
“And what do you yearn for, Timon?”
“I want a country where all have the chance to succeed, regardless of who their parents are,” he said, his voice warming. “I want freedom to speak my mind without fear of execution. I want to live in a nation of possibilities, not a kingdom where the noble-born get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Her heart beat harder as he spoke, and she scolded herself. She was supposed to be a spy, not jump into a dangerous movement with people she barely knew. Her pulse was pounding in her temples, and she rubbed at her brow.
“Do you ever feel like you’re learning too much too fast?” Miri asked. “My skull feels like a goat-bladder balloon blown up too tight.” She peered at him from under her hand. “You don’t know what a goat-bladder balloon is, do you?”
“I don’t!” he said pleasantly. “Here is something you can teach me. I’m sure you’re an excellent teacher.”
Author: Shannon Hale
Synopsis: In this sequel to Princess Academy, Miri, Peder, and several of the Academy girls travel to the capital of Asland for a year. While Peder apprentices in a stone-carver’s workshop, Miri attends a university and ends up facing life-changing choices. Some of those choices are difficult, like whether she should marry her long-loved Peder or her more decisive new friend Timon. Others are deadly, and not just for her: she must choose whether to use her influence and talents in favor of the royal court, which could starve Mount Eskel’s people with its demand for tribute, or to aid the revolutionaries who would free her province but kill her friend Britta.
Notes: When I discovered Princess Academy on the bookshelves of a department store some years back, it caught my attention more quickly and deeply than most. For weeks, I read it over and over again, loving Shannon Hale’s imaginative, sensory depiction of Mount Eskel and its little quarrying community, of lively protagonist Miri Larendaughter and the silent speech carried by linder stone.
Devotion to that stand-alone work left me with a high level of both expectations and fears for the much-later-generated sequel. Rumors of larger themes, a different setting, and a rival love interest all worried me a bit; the smallness of the mountain village was part of what made the community so vividly describable in such a short work, and the original romantic interplay and resolution were unusually captivating for middle grade or even young adult fiction.
The very best thing about Palace of Stone is that Miri is still Miri: humorous, loyal, resourceful, and a natural leader. For her readership, she's the quintessential 'strong female protagonist'—three words which all too often disregard the power of gentleness, not to mention the receptivity and emotional variety that nearly all women possess, but which Miri honors with a convincingly feminine forcefulness and independence.
Whether due to my having become a more particular reader, or to Hale’s combination of deadlines and four young children, the writing came off a little more unpolished than I remember from the book’s predecessor. I missed the intimacy of Mount Eskel; palace and university and salon and streets opened out with less detail to draw a mental picture by. The larger cast of characters proved comparatively unmemorable, and revolution is a very large plot for a small book to take in.
The book's strengths generally compensate for its weaknesses, however. While Hale founders where she's normally at her best—depicting people, worlds and magic systems—she outdid herself in the secondary virtue of letting her characters think through difficult questions. Her tackling of Commerce and Diplomacy in the first book, exceptionally well done, were easily superseded by the discussion and outworking of Ethics as learned by Miri in university and practice. Miri contemplates art, considers the relationship of story and history, witnesses violence and oppression, and searches out the rights and wrongs of both the royalty currently in place and the populace seeking freedom. Her answers are believable and, refreshingly, not as one-sided as the answers commonly given nowadays—even in real life, let alone in middle grade novels.
The romantic progression and wrap-up are sweet, if a little dissatisfying in one small regard. Miri settles the question of who she is beautifully, and she's not the only one whose story arc resolves; Katar, Esa, Frid, Gerti, Peder, Britta, and Liana walk the paths on which they set themselves and receive fitting outcomes.
Overall, Palace of Stone isn’t quite the book Princess Academy was, but it’s a likable follow-up with some truly nice bits of thoughtful artistry. It would be worth reading for the additional Miri time alone.
Recommendation: Read it for a restful, enjoyable story with a few good laughs and a superb young protagonist.