Aza has spent her whole life painfully aware that she is not beautiful. Although her adoptive family loves her as she is, Aza is still hurt by those who call her ugly or who refuse to have someone who looks like her serve them at her family's inn. Her skin is milk white, her blushes are blotchy, her lips are blood-red, and she is overly tall. Her best features are her eyes and her magnificent voice. In the kingdom of Ayortha, having a fine singing voice is no small thing - just about anything can cause a person to break into song, and all events incorporate singing.
When the king announces that he will marry a commoner from outside Ayortha, Aza gets a chance to accompany a duchess to court. When the new queen learns of Aza's illusing ability (Aza can not only imitate sounds and voices, she can throw her voice), she threatens to throw Aza and her family in prison if she does not illuse for her. The new queen's own voice is not good, and she doesn't want anyone to find out.
The situation grows even worse when the king is hurt. The new queen rules in his place and does a terrible job of it, so terrible that her subjects whisper of rebellion. The one bright spot in Aza's life is her growing love for Prince Ijori, but what will happen once Aza's deception is uncovered?
Although I remember seeing and being interested in the print version of the book, I ultimately passed it by after flipping through it and noticing all the song lyrics. I am not a fan of song lyrics in novels at all. Since I can't imagine the lyrics put to music, song lyrics in novels tend to strike me as flat and cheesy.
This is one of those times where the decision to read the book versus listen to it is an important one. This audiobook version of Fairest is read by a full cast (with Sarah Noughton, who plays Aza, doing most of the reading) and features all of Gail Carson Levine's lyrics put to music. If you're like me and have issues with reading lyrics in books, listening to Fairest may be the best way to go.
That's not to say I don't think the audio version has its problems. I think Todd Hobin, who created the music to go with the lyrics, probably had his work cut out for him, especially when it came to the “epistolary songs.” Although I thought some of the songs were nice, there were a few that were a little painful to listen to, I think because of the awkward lyrics. Also, there were a few times when I wished I had also checked out a print copy of the book, because the singing sometimes made it difficult to understand the lyrics. For example, there was one song were Aza sang “I'm not a Sir, but a serf...”, which sounded to me like “I'm not a Sir, but a Sir...”
I thought the singing itself sounded decent, for the most part. I couldn't help but roll my eyes, though, at the idea of a culture that encouraged singing at any moment. I don't think I would have minded so much if the singing had been confined to things like the composing game (turning boring book passages into funny songs, with the funniest song being the winner), the healing sing (a group of people sing songs about a sick person, on the theory that the songs will help the sick person recover), and the songs sung at various events. However, I couldn't quite adjust to the idea that people would spontaneously break into song about private emotions they didn't necessarily want other people to know about. Although this had some of the feel of a musical, it wasn't really a musical, so I had a little less tolerance for all the singing.
The story was pretty basic, a very altered version of the Snow White fairy tale. Snow White's usual description is taken more literally, so Aza's “skin white as snow, lips red as blood” are freakish, rather than beautiful. Beauty plays a big role in the book: Aza is incredibly sensitive about her looks and becomes obsessed with finding magical ways to become beautiful, while Queen Ivi can't stand to be around anyone more beautiful than she is.
While I liked Aza and sympathized with her desire to no longer have people stare at her and make upsetting comments about her looks, her obsession with becoming beautiful made me more and more uncomfortable as the book progressed. I had to grit my teeth when Aza happily tried out new gowns under Queen Ivi's approving gaze – all I could think of was the political turmoil going on in the castle, and the money the Queen spent on those gowns but had refused to send to drought-stricken areas in Ayortha. Aza had more awareness of those things than the Queen, but she still forgot about all of that while she was admiring the improvement the gowns made on her appearance. I wanted to shout at Aza even more when she was locked up and the best thing she could think of to help her cause was to magically make herself more beautiful.
The romance between Aza and Prince Ijori was cute and sweet. I loved one of their earliest scenes, when they were playing the composing game together. I don't know if Ijori was telling the truth when he said he was intrigued by Aza from the beginning, but I thought all the scenes Aza had with Ijori made the progression of their romance believable, and it was clear early on that she had a crush on him. The only sour note, for me, was that I felt she should, and could, have told Ijori what she was doing for the Queen sooner than she did.
While Aza was more forgiving of Queen Ivi's behavior than I was, Levine still managed to make me feel some sympathy for Ivi – she wasn't just a cardboard villain. She wasn't so much evil as she was selfish, self-centered, and unsure of herself. I didn't finish the book with a very high opinion of the king's taste in women, but I also didn't hate Ivi to the degree that I expected I would.
I don't know how much I would have liked this book if I had read it, rather than listened to it. I'm glad, though, that I did listen to it. The story was interesting and Sarah Noughton made a very likable Aza. I only wish Aza's birth parents had been revealed – I wanted something more than the general answer I got.
My grade for Fairest: B-.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Enchanted (live action movie) - A Disney princess is sent from her own world (animated loveliness where people break into musical numbers every once in a while) to ours by an evil queen. Although our world doesn't quite mesh with what the princess is used to, she does have a bit on an effect on people, so there are a few amusing moments where people in the real world break into animated Disney movie-style song. I saw this a while back and enjoyed it more than I expected I would. I'd recommend it to those who wanted something else with singing and a bit of romance.
- At Face Value (book) by Emily Franklin - Those who'd like another YA novel starring a heroine who's self-conscious about her looks might want to try this. Again, there is romance. The story is a contemporary retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, only characters' genders are flipped and everything ends happily. I have written about this book.
- Howl's Moving Castle (anime movie) - It's been a long while since I read the book, so I can't remember much about it other than that it turned out to be very different from the movie, which I saw first. Those who'd like something else where being beautiful or not plays a part in the story may want to try this. There's also some romance and magic. Sophie is a plain, quiet young woman who works at her family's hat shop. After a chance meeting with a handsome young wizard, Sophie attracts the attention of the Witch of the Waste and is turned into an old woman. While looking for someone who can undo her curse, Sophie ends up becoming the cleaning lady for Howl, a powerful wizard who turns out to be the same handsome man she met earlier.
- Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (book) by Robin McKinley - This is the first of what I think are two retellings of the story of Beauty and the Beast that McKinley has written. If I remember correctly, this one is lighter and fluffier than the later one. Those who'd like another YA fairy tale retelling might want to try this. I have written about this book.
- Princess of the Midnight Ball (book) by Jessica Day George - I haven't read anything by this author yet, but the descriptions I've read of her books makes me want to. This sounds like a good recommendation for someone looking for more YA fairy tale retellings. This one seems to mostly be based on the "Twelve Dancing Princesses" story.