Princess Anya’s life hasn’t been going very well for a while. She and her older sister, Morven, live with Duke Rikard, their horrible stepstepfather (husband of their stepmother), their original parents both being dead. The Duke, a sorcerer, plans to get rid of them both, probably by turning them into animals, and seize the kingdom for his own. But things suddenly get even worse when the Duke tells Anya he’s sending her to school halfway around the world, leaving Morven alone at his mercy. Tanitha, one of the Royal Dogs who watch over the castle, sends Anya on a quest to find allies who can help defeat the Duke.
All Anya has ever wanted to do was read in the castle library and learn to do magic. But now she’s off on a difficult and dangerous journey to raise an army, to turn a frog prince and a newt thief back into their human selves, and eventually to try to bring back the rule of law in a kingdom that was shattered before she was born. It will take all the courage, determination, and strength she never knew she had.
“Frogkisser!” by Garth Nix is a delightful story for middle-schoolers, full of fun twists on old legends and fairytales, as well as some ingenious original ideas of Nix’s own. Though a reluctant heroine, Anya turns out to be a plucky and admirable one. Along the way, she learns lessons that are important for a future ruler: lessons like keeping promises, putting others first, protecting the weak from the strong, and considering what’s best for the entire kingdom.
The plot drags a little at times, and the “rules” of Nix’s fictional world aren’t always clearly established. For instance, while becoming a sorcerer tends to turn one evil, wizards generally stay good, and it’s never really explained why. (Witches can go either way, but they usually come to put money above all else, which turns them bad.) Thieves are also sometimes good and sometimes bad, but the dividing line there is the traditional one: Good thieves take from the rich and give to the poor, like Robin Hood.
On the plus side, the writing is clever and often charming, the characters are well drawn, and the moral themes are strong and consistent. Anya gains a clear understanding of why it’s important to establish and respect the rule of law, for everyone’s good, and she does her best to bring it back to the kingdom.
There’s no profanity and no sexual content other than kissing — most of which is done in order to turn transformed frogs and other creatures back into their old selves. There’s quite a bit of fantasy violence, and some well-done suspense, but not much that’s truly scary. “Frogkisser!” is a story that many middle-schoolers will love, and that their parents can appreciate.
Image copyright Scholastic Press. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.