Author: Kelly Barnhill
Genre: Fantasy, MG
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 9th 2012
Hardcover: 432 pages
The end of their world begins with a story.
In most fairy tales, princesses are beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. This isn’t most fairy tales.
Princess Violet is plain, reckless, and quite possibly too clever for her own good. Particularly when it comes to telling stories. One day she and her best friend, Demetrius, stumble upon a hidden room and find a peculiar book. A forbidden book. It tells a story of an evil being — called the Nybbas — imprisoned in their world. The story cannot be true — not really. But then the whispers start. Violet and Demetrius, along with an ancient, scarred dragon, may hold the key to the Nybbas’s triumph . . . or its demise. It all depends on how they tell the story. After all, stories make their own rules.
Iron Hearted Violet is a story of a princess unlike any other. It is a story of the last dragon in existence, deathly afraid of its own reflection. Above all, it is a story about the power of stories, our belief in them, and how one enchanted tale changed the course of an entire kingdom.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Bought
Why did we read this book: Because we loved the sound of this Fantasy-Fairytale-ish Middle Grade in all its promising glory.
The end of their world begins with a story – and with a birth. Princess Violet was born to supportive parents and a loving kingdom. She is smart, loves telling stories and enjoys adventures with her one friend Demetrius.
But, as it just so happens, Violet is not a True Fairytale Princess (TFP) because as we all know, TFP are impossibly beautiful and Violet is no such thing. With her mismatched eyes, lopsided face, blotchy skin and unruly hair, she is far from perfection. Still, nobody cares about Violet’s looks because everybody loves her so much.
Until that is, darkness starts to spread around Violet’s world. It all begins with a hidden book and an untold story. A forgotten God, imprisoned by Mirrors, whose diminishing power is reborn. All of a sudden, whispers start and they say ugly things about Violet. That maybe it is her fault that things are going so bad. That maybe she is not a True Princess at all. And she believes it. And makes a wish that might end their world forever.
This is a story about what being a True Princess really means. But also about the power of storytelling and of friendship and about the last dragon in existence.
I am on the fence about Iron Hearted Violet. There are several things that commend it. The strength of its female characters is one of them. In this world, women occupy positions of power (including within the army) very naturally and without it being an issue. Violet herself is a worthy protagonist and I loved her arc and her learning journey about what it takes to be a real princess and how to assume responsibility for one’s kingdom. I loved the importance given to loyalty and friendship as well as the thematic core of the novel and the importance of stories and storytelling. One of the biggest draws for me was the narrator – omniscient and intrusive, self-aggrandising but often self-deprecating (which was super fun to read) – but what was a draw for me personally, might well be a turn off for other readers as it often happens with narrative choices such as these.
That said, I continuously questioned the “truths” portrayed in the novel and some of the internal rules of the story seemed rather…illogical?
For example: even though we are told over and over again how this is a Good Kingdom, and how Violet is loved by everybody, Violet is still completely friendless apart from her friendship with Demetrius. That doesn’t make sense within the confines of the book – unless you consider how for the story to actually work, Violet needed be a lonely girl which just means that her loneliness is an extremely contrived plot point.
Another point that confused me is the story behind the creation of the world and the forgotten God, The Nybbas. On the one hand, nobody could talk about the The Nybbas because the story has established that merely speaking about it means giving it power. On the other hand, the other Gods who imprisoned him (they couldn’t kill the God for good for…reasons) seemed to be counting on the fact that The Nybbas would make a comeback which can only mean that people would talk about it. It is a nonsensical conundrum if I have ever seen one.
One of the main themes of the story is how the idea that a Princess must always be Impossibly Beautiful (i.e. too long, heavy hair, tiny feet which makes walking properly impossible, etc) is made fun of and is often criticized. The book pokes fun at classical stories where Beauty is the sole defining characteristic of princesses and it makes a point of showing that Violet, despite not being classically beautiful (quite the contrary) was in fact, a True Princess because of her actions. This is all well and good and definitely a good message to impart. But I wished that the book had been a little bit clearer about the fact that being beautiful does not necessarily translate into being evil either.
Finally, the biggest flaw of Iron Hearted Violet stems from the very thing that the story is criticising and how its illustrations failure to conform with the story that this book is telling. The illustrations here are important and a part of the storytelling and yet….all of its illustrations of Violet as well as its cover do NOT show her as she is described. The fact that the entire book is illustrated with Violet as a beautiful girl basically undermines the very thematic core of the book. It drove me to distraction to be honest and made me so mad that this book is being sold with these illustrations that do not match the character. This to me, despite its strengths, effectively derailed the story.
I’m of a very similar mind when it comes to Iron Heated Violet. On the one hand, as Ana says, I love the idea and core conceit behind this book. I mean, you have a princess that is loved no matter WHAT she looks like, who discovers that being a true princess has nothing to do with her appearance and everything to do with her heart and strength and character! That is an amazing message! There’s also a cool (in theory) fantasy element with multiple universes, multiple gods, dragons without hearts, and mischief aplenty. All of this (again, in theory) is fantastic.
There is a big BUT. There are a number of issues with regard to execution. I agree with basically everything Ana has outlined above, and won’t rehash anything (except when it comes to the illustrations, but more on that in a bit). From a pure story and writing perspective, there were a couple of significant stumbling blocks, from the awkward narration to the stunted pacing, and some of the writing and stylistic choices.
Let’s start with the narration, shall we? Iron Hearted Violet is narrated by the court storyteller, who frequently interjects with his opinions, with some foreshadowing (as he’s telling the story after the fact), and his own touches at wit and humor. Unfortunately, the result is a bit strange and uneven, as the storyteller’s actual importance and presence in the story wavers. There were times in the book where the storyteller would disappear and I would forget altogether that we had a character narrator – only to be jarred out of that experience when the storyteller would appear again suddenly, breaking the fourth wall. (This is to say nothing of the fact that the storyteller cannot possibly have seen/known everything that he did, so there’s an authenticity problem, too.)
Compounding this narrative shakiness is the problem of pacing, the actual writing style and execution. From a pacing perspective, while the majority of the story is told in longer direct chapters, the middle portion of the book was filled with shorter, choppier chapters often ending with different characters muttering ominously about signs before vanishing or dramatically leaving. For example:
“Come, Moth,” she said briskly. “We have work to do.” And they turned their faces into the sighing wind and vanished in the gloom.
“Demetrius? Where are you going?” But it was too late. Demetrius ran past the stables and disappeared from sight.
Help me, Cassian, mouthed her lips. And Violet vanished from sight.
“THREE!” Moth shouted, and with the three small creatures clinging to his clothing, Demetrius launched into the darkness and fell into the pit.
Meanwhile, at the end of other chapters, some characters grin evilly in the dark:
And in the darkness, a single eye – bright and hot like an ember – blinked once, twice, and glowed open.
And from its prison, the Nybbas grinned its yellow grin. NOW, it crowed. NOW, NOW, NOW.
Needless to say, when every chapter ends this way for chapters on end, these dramatic gestures kind of lose their impact.
Stylistically (and perhaps this is a nitpick but it was confusing and jarring for me so I think worth mentioning), a subset of special characters were defined by their speech reflected in ALL CAPS. The frustrating thing about this choice is that these are all very different characters – one is The Nybbas, one is a Dragon, and one is another God. Perhaps a different font choice would have been a better way to differentiate between these varied characters? Your mileage may vary.
Finally, I cannot, cannot end this review without reiterating everything Ana has already said regarding the illustrations. Violet is very pointedly, very importantly NOT a perfect, pretty princess. She, in fact, is repeatedly described as being very unattractive and growing uglier by the day, with mismatched and mis-sized eyes, coarse and unruly hair, with freckles and moles, a chipped tooth, and a pug nose. Her appearance and her obsession with becoming a beautiful “real” princess is a huge, central point of this book.
This, however, is how Violet is portrayed in the illustrations:
You see the problem? What kind of bizarre, contradictory message is this sending by drawing Violet as a perky, pretty princess?! It baffles the mind as to why anyone would allow this representation of Violet in the final book as it is so blatantly contrary to on of the core themes of the story (essentially saying, to me, maybe we can WRITE about ugly princesses but no one really wants to SEE anyone that isn’t beautiful in the accompanying illustrations.). Edited: I should add that Kelly Barnhill is not the illustrator of this book (that would be Iacopo Bruno). We should also say that we have no idea as to whether or not Kelly Barnhill had any input regarding the book’s illustrations.
Needless to say, it was incredibly distracting, disappointing, and deeply disheartening.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: From Chapter 1:
The end of my world began with a story. It also began with a birth.
Princess Violet, last of that name— indeed the last princess at all to be born in the Andulan Realms— was not a pretty child. When she was born, her hair grew in tufted clumps around her pink- and- yellow head, and her mouth puckered to the side whenever anyone peeked into her cradle.
Her gaze was sharp, intelligent, and intense, leaving the visitor with the uncanny feeling that the royal infant was sizing him up, assessing his worth— and finding him wanting. She was the type of child whom a person wanted to impress.
Interesting, yes. Intelligent, most certainly. But not a pretty child.
When she was five days old, her round face broke out in a rash that lasted for weeks.
When she was twelve weeks old, the last of her feathery black hair drifted away, leaving her skull quite bald, with a lopsided sheen. Her hair grew back much later as a coarse, crinkly, auburn mass, resistant to braids and ribbons and almost impossible to comb.
When she was one year old, it became clear that her left eye was visibly larger than her right. Not only that, it was a different color, too. While the right eye was as blue as the Western Ocean in the earliest morning, the left was gray—like the smoke offered to the dying sky each evening by the magicians of the eastern wall.
Her nose pugged, her forehead was too tall, and even when she was just a baby, her skin was freckled and blotched, and no number of milk baths or lemon rubs could unmark her. People remarked about her lack of beauty, but it couldn’t be helped. She was a princess all the same. Our Princess. And we loved her.
Ana: 6 – Good but with LOADS of reservations
Thea: 6 – Good, but ditto regarding the reservations
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