Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The 10th Kingdom (book) by Kathryn Wesley

This book is based on a mini-series that aired on NBC in 2000.

Virginia's life doesn't seem to be going anywhere. She waits tables and lives with her father in an apartment at the edge of Central Park, an apartment the two of them can only afford because her father is the building janitor/handyman. Virginia daydreams about a more magical, fairy tale kind of life, and her father grumbles and complains about how he's treated by his boss while meekly doing whatever his boss asks. They're both in a rut, until their lives get turned upside down by people from a magical world/dimension.

Over in that magical world, Prince Wendell is getting ready for his coronation, preparing to visit his murderous stepmother in prison and once again deny her request for parole. However, things go very badly, his stepmother frees herself, and Wendell's mind ends up in the body of a dog (and vice versa). Wendell manages to barely escape his stepmother by accidentally traveling through a magic mirror. He ends up in our world, Virginia's world.

Although things have not gone entirely according to plan, Wendell's stepmother, the Queen, is not daunted. She's going to use Dog Wendell to forcibly take over all the kingdoms - all she has to do is make sure no one discovers her before she's ready, which means making sure that the real Wendell (who, while in dog form, will be referred to as Prince) doesn't interfere. She enlists the help of some trolls and a half-wolf, who also end up traveling through the mirror. When Virginia pretty much falls over Prince, she inadvertently involves herself and her father (Tony) in Prince's problems. All three of them end up traveling through the mirror to the magical world, with the half-wolf (called Wolf) and trolls soon following after them.

So begins Virginia and Tony's long journey through several of the Nine Kingdoms. Almost as soon as they cross over to the magical world, Virginia and Tony want to leave, but the universe seems determined to keep that from happening, as the mirror, their only way back, stays continuously out of their reach. Prince doesn't want either one of them to leave because he needs their help to get his body back and keep his kingdom safe from the Queen. Wolf, who joins the small group, doesn't want Virginia to leave because she's his mate - and wolves, including half-wolves, mate for life.

The group travels through different places in the various kingdoms. Many of these places have links to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. There's the Snow White Memorial Prison, a shepherding village with a magical secret, Kissing Town, a forest that's home to a deadly hunstman, and more. Virginia and Tony's adventures and the people they meet reference many fairy tales, including "Rapunzel," "Snow White," "Cinderella," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and more.

As they travel, Tony and Virginia's experiences force them to grow inside and reevaluate how they've been living their lives. Tony learns to be more brave and responsible. He learns to do things, rather than complain about them. Virginia learns to stand up for herself and take care of herself - after all, even in the Nine Kingdoms there isn't always a handsome prince around to keep a girl out of danger (Wolf tries hard, but he also contributes a little danger himself). She also learns to deal with the part of herself that never quite got over her mother's abandonment of her family. Eventually, neither Tony nor Virginia can hide behind lies and self-deception any longer, and Virginia learns things about her mother and father that she might not otherwise have ever discovered.

I don't think you can ever really expect a novelization to be more than ok - quite often, in my opinion, they tend to be rather bad. In this case, the book isn't too bad. At times, I actually enjoyed it more than the original mini-series. For instance, I enjoyed Wolf much more when I was able to imagine for myself what he looked like and how he sounded - true, since I've seen the mini-series this has colored how I visualized the book, but there's still room for imagination to embellish certain scenes or even make them better. I remember avidly watching the mini-series mainly because of Wolf, and I must admit that I found him to be the main draw in this novelization as well.

It's been a while since I've seen the mini-series from beginning to end - the last time might've actually been in 2000, when it was still playing on TV. However, based on what I remember of it, this novelization follows the mini-series pretty faithfully. There are maybe three parts I found to be noticeably different - the part with the magic fish, the part where Virginia meets Snow White, and the part where Virginia and her father are stuck in the Swamp Witch's swamp. In some cases, I wish the book had actually been even more different - for instance, the "Saturday Night Fever" joke did not translate very well into book form, and neither did Virginia's singing in the shepherdess competition. Also, by staying so faithful to the mini-series, the book sort of inherited one of the show's weaknesses, its somewhat confused and uneven tone. It's like the creators of the mini-series couldn't decide whether they wanted a funny/quirky story or something that took itself more seriously. The story starts off on the funny and sometimes somewhat goofy side - by the end, as Virginia and Tony confront the issue of Virginia's mother, all that goofy stuff is gone, and it's a serious story that just happens to take place in a fairy tale world. I enjoyed the humor much more in the mini-series - I think the book would have been better if the humor had been shoved into the background even more.

Aside from Wolf, one thing I really liked about the book was the frequent peeks into the private thoughts of the characters. I don't know that these peeks provided any information that one couldn't have guessed from watching the mini-series, but it was still nice to see what the characters were thinking. Once again, the bits from Wolf's perspective were my favorites - I couldn't help but laugh whenever he started mentally gushing over Virginia.

I can't really say whether I thought the novelization was better than the mini-series, or vice versa. Actually, I think the two sort of compliment each other. If someone unfamiliar with the series asked me to name the best version to start out with, however, I would probably tell them to start with the mini-series. The mini-series occasionally has some laughably bad/obvious special effects, but at least it's easy to tell what's going on - some of the magical bits in the book may be hard to visualize without the mini-series as a mental guide.

The book includes 14 full-color pages of images from the mini-series - if you're the sort who prefers to approach a novelization without the taint of knowledge of what the original looked like, these pictures will probably ruin a few things for you. Others will probably enjoy them - there are a couple that I think would have made nice posters, if only they were larger.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - Kagome is an ordinary schoolgirl living in present day Tokyo. One day, she travels to feudal Japan by way of an ancient well and discovers that she is the reincarnation of the priestess who once guarded the powerful Shikon Jewel. After the jewel is accidentally shattered, Kagome, a half-demon named Inuyasha, and others team up in order to recover all the shards. Those who'd like another adventure, with a bit of romance, that takes place in both modern world and a magical world (which, in this case, happens to be feudal Japan) might want to try this. This series references Japanese folk tales, similar to the way The 10th Kingdom references Western fairy tales.
  • Stardust (book) by Neil Gaiman; Stardust (live action movie) - Tristan Thorn promises the prettiest girl in his small town that he'll bring her the falling star the two of them saw streak across the sky. So begins his journey across the Wall that separates his town from the Faerie realm. He encounters many dangers that would be right at home in a fairy tale, as he and the star (which takes the form of a young woman while in the Faerie realm) evade, among other things, evil old witches and the murderous sons of the dead Lord of Stormhold. Those who'd like another story with a bit of a fairy tale feel, lots of adventure, and some romance might want to try this.
  • Tin Man (live action mini-series) - In this science fiction update of Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a young Midwestern woman named D.G. ends up in the land of OZ, a once-beautiful place under the iron rule of a sorceress named Azkadellia. D.G. goes on a journey to find the mystic man, a person who's supposed to have all the answers she needs, and is joined by several others, a scarecrow, a tin man (OZ's version of a cop), and a gentle manimal. Things don't go as Dorothy hopes, but she eventually discovers a lot of secrets about her own past and her connection to OZ. Those who'd like something else in which the modern world and a magical world intersect might want to try this. However, whereas The 10th Kingdom can't seem to decide whether to be serious or silly, this mini-series definitely chooses the more serious path.
  • Howl's Moving Castle (anime movie) - A young woman named Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste, who turns her into an old woman. The only person Sophie can think of that might help her is the wizard Howl, who has a bad reputation for seducing pretty young women. Sophie makes herself part of Howl's little family by getting a job as his housekeeper. She gradually learns more about Howl and his friends, and several curses and contracts are dealt with before the movie ends. This movie was based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, but the two are so different that I have not listed the book here. Those who'd like another adventure, with a little bit of romance, set in a magical, almost fairy tale-like world might want to try this movie.

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