Annie's father is a hero. After Annie's little brother was born, he'd promised his family that he'd give up his hero-ish ways, and settle down, but that was before the wizard Greenlott started terrorizing the kingdom. A shortage of heroes meant that he had to set off again...but now he hasn't come back.
Ten-year old Annie knows she's no hero. Many's the time her father had said she'd make an excellent damsel someday. But even a damsel-to-be has to take action when things get desperate, so Annie takes off to save her father, his big book of hero tips under her arm.
"A hero is a man who continues to try, even when all hope seems to be gone," the book advises (page 12). Annie knows she's "just" a girl, but still she has the guts to try.
And almost before she knows it, she's saving young Roger, a putative prince, from death by giant spider, and escaping (with Roger's help) a nastily amorous frog prince. Then the two of them, both determined to be as heroic as a servant boy and a damsel can be, must work together to face down a dragon...and foil the evil wizard.
Annie's bold quest is a humorous and engagingly written journey of adventure and self-discovery. It's not a book I'd recommend to the adult reader of middle grade fiction, who might not find the story sufficiently deep or original for their own reading pleasure, but it's a very good one for its intended audience. The younger reader who dreams of days of yore when knights were bold should enjoy it a lot, and might also find it delightful to learn that damsels can do more than toss their hair and shriek prettily.
Parents of girls defying gender stereotypes, or parents of servant boys who long for greater things, might want to put this one in their children's hands.
Note--the giant spiders are a bit scary, and the frog prince a bit disturbing, but there isn't anything that should be troubling to the savvy 8 or 9 year-old. Here's the spider gore:
"Annie!" roared Roger. "Look out for the..."Damsel has been nominated for the Cybils Awards in the middle-grade science fiction and fantasy category, and the publisher graciously sent review copies all the way from Ireland! Thanks.
Annie brought the sword down sharply and it slid right in between the spider's head and midsection.
As the spider screamed and slumped down, a fountain of green and brown slime erupted from the wound Annie had made and covered her from head to toe.
"There was a warning on the next page of the book," said Roger quietly. (page 43)
postscript: "I could see it happening," my nine-year old son commented. "There are tons of tomboys running around." And now I am wondering if this is good (he finds it plausible) or bad--is the "tomboy girl" a stereotype in its own right that needs to be defied? Which this book does, in fact, do-- Annie is not particularly "tomboyish," just smart and gutsy. Likewise Princess Meg, in Kate Coombs' Runaway Princess and Runaway Dragon, which I also just read for the Cybils (my review).