Princess Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, was born with a word on her tongue and a duty that never weighed comfortably on her shoulders. Far more so than people, she understands the birds of the air, the old stories in which every created thing has a language, and her horse Falada. Uncomfortable with strangers and royal tasks, Ani nonetheless tries her best to live up to the standard of her mother, a beautiful woman with the gift of people-speaking (the ability to sway others to her thought simply through her speech). Then the queen makes a decision that will send Ani far away from everything and everyone she knows, into a strange new world of danger and deception where the crown princess with a word on her tongue will have to find the strength to save two nations.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because the Grimm brothers told us a very similar version. Many of the pieces are present and familiar: the princess sent to be queen of a foreign land, the horse she speaks with, the treacherous serving maid, and the titular disguise as a goose girl. Don’t mistake this for a simple retelling, though. The world is richly painted, a place of real people and real problems wound through the more mystical aspects of lost languages.Ani’s journey is more than just princess to goose girl to hero; it’s also a journey of self-discovery, of strengths and weaknesses and dreams, of finding the courage to do what is right rather than what is easy. It’s learning to trust others despite fear of betrayal, it’s learning to trust oneself, but most of all, it’s about learning who we really are apart from anyone else’s defintions of us.
It’s a fairy tale, in all the best ways.
It’s a slow start. Our time in Kildenree and our initial time in the Forest progress gradually to let the world unfold around us. We learn a lot about why Ani probably isn’t the best choice to succeed her mother to the throne of Kildenree, despite her birthright, we learn how incredibly isolated Ani is from everyone else- not just because of her gifts- and just how uncomfortable she is within her own skin. She’s uncertain, self-conscious, and keenly aware of all the ways she doesn’t measure up to her mother’s expectations. It doesn’t become less painful with time, either. Every new comparison and perceived failing wounds just as deeply as the one before. She relies on her friendship with her horse Falada, with whom she can speak because she was there at his birth to say back to him the first word on his tongue, and on her father’s understanding and love. Her father may be king, but it’s very clear that he doesn’t rule Kildenree, and his sense of being little more than an accessory helps comfort her.
Because of that uncertainty, as well as her isolation, Ani is hopelessly naive. We as the reader know what’s going to happen in the Forest long before she does. (Which, if I’m honest, can be a little irritating at points- her innocence is sweet but also rather frustrating, mainly because it illuminates just how little she understands people) It’s in the tail end of her time in the Forest that she starts to realize her own naivete, and for me, that was when she started to get interesting. She’s so used to being served that it doesn’t even occur to her that not everyone lives that way, that if she’s in a bed, chances are pretty good there’s someone who’s going without their own bed right then. Within the poverty of the Forest, her eyes start to open to the way so many other people have to live.
When she arriives in the capital city of Bayern- the larger, more aggressive and powerful nation whose prince she was sent to marry- she finds that her former lady-in-waiting has assumed her name and position. Like Kildenree’s queen, Selia has the gift of people-speaking, and Ani knows there’s no way she’ll be able to convince anyone of the truth with Selia dripping lies so much more convincingly in their ears. The way back through the Forest is a journey of weeks and months, not one she can make on her own, and she has no coin to buy passage with a caravan- and, gradually, she realizes that she has nothing truly waiting for her back in Kildenree anyway. Her father is dead, her horse is missing, her mother is disappointed in her, and her younger brother has taken her place as heir to the throne. So, in a decision that takes equal parts cowardice and courage, she finds a position as a goose girl to the king’s flock.
As a goose girl, she’s simply Isi, a rather backwards girl who sounds like she’s from the Forest and doesn’t know anything about tending geese but slowly, patiently, learns their language. Geese aren’t the only things she learns to read. She’s finally in a pisition where she has to interact with people. She learns about kindness and support that hide beneath a gruff exterior, about steadiness and loyalty that hide within a mischievous smile. She even learns about love.
She also learns some more difficult lessons, about the hardships people endure, about the struggle to make a living, and the prejudices that keep people apart. All her life she’s lived as a noble and never seen what went into creating that life; now she sees the other side, is one of the people who work and work hard for a pittance. Most of her fellow animal keepers are Forest Born and not even considered proper citizens of Bayern. Except for festival days, they’re not allowed to go into taverns with the city-folk or celebrate with them, and the boys are not allowed the symbols of Bayern men. Criminals are executed and hung on display and city-men take upon themselves the role of Peacekeepers because the king’s soldiers can’t be bothered to protect those who live there.
This is where I fell in love with the story. I was enjoying it before, as one always enjoys a good fairy tale, but suddenly there was so much more depth to it. Isi- Ani- was born a princess, but now she’s in a position to learn what that really means. Her fellow animal keepers don’t care about the yellow princess (as they call Selia the imposter). They don’t care that she’s a princess, they don’t care that she’s to marry their prince. They just think she’s a stuck-up twit. They view their nobility and royalty with wry irreverence occasionally tinged with respect, but for the most part, they simply accept that it doesn’t matter. They have their hands full just trying to survive.
And she learns, carefully, slowly, to trust, to read people with some measure of success. Brash and fiery Enna, with her impish smile and sass and her talent for pranks, proves to be someone she can rely on with everything she is. Enna protects her but doesn’t smother her, doesn’t try to keep her separate from things. Finn is quiet but reliable, a strength like a deep pool. Even Conrad, prickly and self-conscious and prone to sulking, is real and rounded, not just a name and a face but a fully developed person. Selia sometimes falls prey to caricature but everything she does makes sense in a slightly twisted, self-justifying way. Geric is sweet and sincere, if a bit awkward, with a deep core of honor that translates to doing hard, painful things in the name of what is right.
There’s so much more to this book, but every time I read it, I’m captivated by the journey Ani/Isi makes. She progresses from a girl who is, let’s admit it, fairly useless in the broader scope of things, and grows into someone tempered by pain and experience, someone who can lead, wants to lead, and someone who will champion the people no one else sees. We should all be so lucky to grow so well. It’s not without its pains and its falls, and certainly it’s not an easy journey to take, but it’s one filled with such richess of character, or the joy in quiet moments and simple things, that we’re all better for understanding it.
The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, first of the Books of Bayern.
Until next time~