In a land where music and beauty are revered, Aza has the voice of an angel. But her face? Not so much. At all. I mean really. But when the new, stunningly beautiful queen wants Aza to be her new lady-in-waiting, how can she refuse? Especially when Prince Ijori not only doesn't cringe at the sight of her, but seems to actively seek her company.
Things go awry, as they are wont to do in fairy tales. The king is badly injured, and the queen, ruling in his stead, quickly brings the country to the point of rebellion, dragging Aza into her intrigue and deceipt and possibly the worst of all, into the public eye.
If you've read Ella Enchanted, then you know Levine's writing style is deceptively simple--there is nothing here that is difficult to read or understand, and Fairest could easily be enjoyed by an eight-year-old. And yet I couldn't put it down. Part of the reason I love classic fairy tales so much is that they can be equally enjoyed by children and adults--refashionings of the tales don't always work that way.
As an adult reader, I see Aza worrying constantly about her looks. Her looks have always been thrown in her face. At her parents' inn, patrons don't want her serving their dinner or cleaning their rooms. They cringe or laugh or grimace or pretend she's not there. Even people she's known her whole life are unspeakably rude to her. She's sixteen.
I don't know about you, but when I was sixteen, I was pretty worried about my looks too--and I've never been mistaken for an ogre.
On the other hand, Aza is also very confident in her voice, and her special ability to throw it, even when she's singing. Singing and composing songs are how she expresses herself--there are a lot of songs in the book, and it's a rather lovely way to understand a main character, and far more telling than a simple "she was sad," or "she thought that was funny."
As the storyline progresses, Aza's definition of herself stop hinging solely on her ugliness (it's not that she's not pretty--she's actively ugly) and her beautiful voice. She comes to know herself as someone clever, honest, and interesting. She becomes a whole person.
Yeah, yeah, enough about her personal growth. There are also murder plots (yes, that is plural), an evil mirror-dweller, potions that disguise and spells that beautify (or not...), personal and political betrayal, and a very discerning dog.
The lesson that beauty is only skin-deep is rather heavy-handed, but the grace with which Levine writes more than makes up for it. Her version of the Snow White tale, with a more sympathetic queen and a cave-dwelling gnome-judge, and a king who is not dead but comatose in a country on the brink of civil war is not your everyday, perfectly parallel retelling. It is something new altogether, and it's really rather wonderful.
(True: I have read Ella Enchanted. I've also seen the film version with Anne Hathaway. The movie is supercute. The book is far more sophisticated, and just plain better. But the movie does have musical numbers, which is pretty great, too...)