The Silver Bowl, by Diane Stanley (Harper Collins, YA/middle grade, 320 pages) is one of those very pleasant fantasy books that is tailor-made for the 11 or 12 year old girl looking for an engrossing escape from the real world. It's set in a medieval not-quite Europe, and tells how a 7-year-old pot scrubber in the castle kitchen grew up to become a brave girl, with a magical gift that helps her break the sinister magical curse that has brought death to her country's royal family.
Young Molly's pot scrubbing skills were so great that she was promoted to polishing the royal silver. The most precious thing she was assigned was the great silver bowl in which the royal hands were washed. But as she polishes, she sees visions...and through these visions she learns of a dark curse that is threatening the lives of the royal family. When magical wolves break into the castle, savagely attacking the queen and her children, Molly and her stable-boy friend, Tobias, save the life of Prince Alaric (beautiful, but, not unnaturally, a snob). But keeping him alive means breaking the curse once and for all....and to do that, Molly must figure out the secrets held by the silver bowl, and her own family's role in the magic it contains.
The plot is clearly based on a substantial amount of magic, but the magic is kept, as it were, in its proper place. It's certainly enough to lend enchantment to the view, but it doesn't overwhelm the day to day actions of the characters. It's these quotidian details that most pleased me about this book, but that being said, I love the way in which Molly's gift is tied to the silversmithing heritage of her family, craft magic being a great favorite of mine!
The mystery of the silver bowl is intriguing, the characters are engaging, and the development of the relationships between Molly, Tobias, and Alaric is a pleasure to read about. Although things are, perhaps, a bit slow to get going (for those who don't enjoy silver polishing), once things start happening, it all moves along with a nice briskness.
I have one very minor reservation about The Silver Bowl-occasionally the prose that Molly uses in her first person narration felt a tad stiff, as if Stanley were aiming for a more "medievally" feel, with little phrases, like "I could scarce believe it" and "I grew ever more anxious." Some readers might find this adds to the medieval world-building, others might find a bit forced. And likewise, given that Molly has had no formal education at all, and has spent her childhood in the kitchen scrubbing pots, she has a surprisingly erudite vocabulary.
This is marketed as YA, but it has a very middle-grade feel. There's a bit of violence (but not too terrible) and although romance is in the air, it isn't happening quite yet... Happily, there will be a chance for that in the future--from Diane Stanley's website comes this news: "I have recently finished book two, THE RAVEN OF HARROWSGODE, in which Molly explores the source and nature of her ever-changing magical gift." Goodie!
The Silver Bowl is included in Booklist's Top 10 SF/Fantasy for Youth, the full list is here, in their May 15, 2011 issue, a list on which it stands out for being a relatively gentle fantasy, good for middle grade readers. Here's another review at Book Aunt.
Highly recommended to fans of Jessica Day George, Gail Carson Levine, and Shannon Hale.