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Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale
I was very surprised and pleased, to see that Shannon Hale had written a sequel to "Princess Academy". I have to admit that I was also a little bit nervous. I loved the message of "Princess Academy." The idea that the Creator God gave the priests the message that they would find the future queen on Mount Eskel not because a Mount Eskel girl would be the prince's choice, but because the Creator God knew that the Princess Academy would provide a way to educate the children of Mount Eskel and that would fulfill Mount Eskel's needs was a fantastic way for it all to work out. How could Hale top that, I wondered.
I don't know if she topped it, but "Princess Academy: Palace of Stone" is definitely a worthy successor to "Princess Academy."
The story opens with Miri waiting for the final traders for the year. Miri has received two letters. One letter is from Katar asking her to help with some unspecified problem that has come up in her job as delegate from Mount Eskel to Asland; the other letter is from Britta inviting her and the rest of the academy students to come to Asland, the capital of their country, Danland, for the year surrounding her wedding to Steffan.
Miri is one of six girls from the academy who has accepted the invitation. She is reluctant to leave, but Britta has also secured a seat for her at the Queen's Castle, the institution of higher learning for Danland. Miri cannot pass up an opportunity to further her education, so she makes her plans and heads for Asland.
Peder is going to Asland, as well, as he has been offered an apprenticeship in sculpting from one of the finest sculptors in Danland.
Upon her arrival in Asland, Miri is told what situation Katar needs help with. Danland is striated into three classes -- nobility, commoners, and servants. The nobility are the only ones entitled to own land, and so they demand rent from the commoners and servants. The rent is more expensive than owning their homes outright would be, so this reduces the ability of commoners and servants to do such things as buy food and pay for doctors. Some commoners make enough money that they can absorb the cost of the rent, but most commoners and effectively all servants, do not, and they are beginning to talk of revolution. Katar wants Miri to infiltrate the organization of the revolutionaries so that Katar can know what is coming. Having a friend among the revolutionaries, Katar hopes, will also keep her head off of the chopping block that faces the other delegates if (or when) the revolution comes.
At the end of "Princess Academy" the girls of the academy were all given the title "Lady of the Princess," which makes them nobility. Thus, the girls of the academy are among the few nobles who have also been commoners. This gives Miri access to the halls of power, but the rebels see her as one of themselves.
Miri also gets into a love triangle, torn between Peder and a young man she meets at the Queen's Castle, Timon (fortunately, I am not a huge fan of "The Lion King", so I only wondered where Pumbaa was once). I had a very strong idea of whom Miri should choose, if she chose anyone, but I won't let you know whether it worked out the way I wanted or not.
There are two related recurring themes in this book. On her first day at the Queen's Castle, Miri's attention is drawn to a painting of a girl pouring milk while looking at the moon. When the subject of ethics comes up, she asks the teacher, Master Filippus, what ethics is. He had noticed her noticing the painting, and he asks her if she had to choose only one to rescue from a fire, the painting or a convicted murderer, which would she rescue? We return to both the question and the painting on several occasions as her thoughts and perceptions evolve. I found this to be a very effective way of showing Miri's development through her year in Asland.
The only drawback that I can find was with what is supposed to be one of the most exciting scenes in the book. Two similar occurrences happen one right after the other, and as a result, the second time, I didn't think "How exciting!" so much as "Really? Again?" I think that with a little bit of rearrangement, one of these scenes could have been sacrificed.
In the end, though, Miri saves the day, which only makes sense, since she is the hero. And things don't end up tied up neatly, but rather with an open ended ending that hints at the limitless possibilities for Miri's future.