Princess of the Wild Swans, by Diane Zahler (HarperCollins, 2012), is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales--The Wild Swans (which is just about the only Hans Christian Anderson story I actively enjoyed, as opposed to reading with kind of sick fascination) also known as The Six Swans in the Grimm version (which I read more often). It's the story of a princess who must save her brothers when they are transformed into swans by their evil stepmother. I found Zahler's version very pleasant indeed.
12 year old Meriel is the youngest child of king whose land is peaceful and prosperous, and she's had a happy life running a little wild, trying to get her five older brothers to pay attention to her, and ignoring her tutor. But when the king brings home one day a beautiful new wife, everything changes. Meriel intuitively distrusts the new queen, and small snippets of observation cause her feelings of foreboding to grow. For one thing, the queen didn't know about the five brothers...and is not at all happy that they exist. Meriel can't confide in her father, who is strangely besotted. Her fears prove justified when her stepmother transforms her brothers in swans.
Fortunately for Meriel (and the swan brothers) the evil stepmother is not the only witch in the neighborhood. With the help of one brother's sweetheart, who's half a witch, Meriel learns how she can break the spell. She must make her brothers shirts from stinging nettles. For one who has never done a day's hard work in their life, this is a daunting task. To make it worse, she must not speak until the transformation is broken.
A race against time ensues, as Meriel struggles to finish the shirts before winter comes, and before the queen suspects what she is doing. But soon it becomes clear that it is not only Meriel's brothers who are at risk. The queen is plotting to open wide the gates between the mortal and fairy realms. Already sinister creatures are crossing over. If Meriel can't break the queen's enchantment, her whole country will be lost...
The biggest change Zahler makes in her retelling is that the princess doesn't have to marry, whether she wants to or not, a prince who is besotted by her mute beauty, ending in the princess almost being burned at the stake by the prince's paranoid mother. This is a good change! Keeping the focus on the evil stepmother, without introducing complications, lets Zahler tell a tighter story, and removing the whole weird marriage element lets it stay nicely middle grade (there's a bit of hinting at a romance-to-be for Meriel, but it never directly manifests itself). It was also a wise move to cut six (or 1, if your using the Grimm version) of the original brothers. Five is plenty.
The whole story is set in and around the castle, and this gives it a rather homey feel. Instead of grand questy-ness, we get to meet brave commoners, and Meriel gains a new understanding of life outside the castle walls. The evil machinations of the bad queen play out nicely as an intrusion into the ordinary world, and the final struggle is grippingly fraught (but not so fraught as to horrify a sensitive young reader). It's easy to guess that Good will triumph over Evil, but it's rather refreshing to see that there's a price to be paid (in this case, Meriel's difficult and painful labor).
I finished the book well-satisfied that Zahler had done the story justice. I enjoyed her previous retellings--The Thirteenth Princess (12 Dancing Princess--my review) and A True Princess (the Princess and the Pea--my review), but not wildly so--both of those left me with small bits of dissatisfaction. Princess of the Wild Swans, though, didn't in the least, and is my hands down favorite! The story makes sense, both as a re-telling and in its own right, and I liked the characters and was happy to cheer for them. I'd recommend this without reservation to any young reader (I'd go with 9 to 11 years old) who loves fantasy with a strong young heroine.