Iron Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill (Little Brown, Oct. 2012, middle grade) is a moving and memorable story of a brave girl confronting a terrible darkness.
(That's me deciding that I should start every review with a little teaser sentence so that people will keep reading. This is me thinking my teaser sentence is somewhat banal. Oh well).
Violet is the princess of a land that lies beneath a mirrored sky lit by two suns, one of many worlds in a multiverse of all the possibilities the creator gods imagined. She is not a beautiful princess, but she is beloved, and as the only child of the king and queen, she is her country's hope and heart. She is a child of stories, listing to all the tales the old story master shared with her, and making up her own spellbinding sagas. And she and her friend Demetrius, the son of the stable master, grow up in happy exploration of the castle...untrammeled (through deliberate avoidance on Violet's part) of social and situational expectation (which is to say, Violet isn't exactly a docile pupil). And though she knows that she isn't beautiful, as a true princess should be, Violet is happy.
But one day, in their explorations of the mysterious, miniature labyrinth of panelled passageways, secreted within the castle walls, the two children come across a hidden chamber. In it was imprisoned a dark secret...an ancient power of evil, desperate to be free, that latches onto Violet with wily tendrils of mental malevolence.
And then everything goes wrong. Horribly, sadly, wrong...except, as is always the case in the best sort of stories, there is hope--hope that Violet can stay true to herself, hope that Demeterius will be a stalwart friend and defender, hope that the stories of the ancient gods are true...and hope that the last of the dragons might find his hidden heart...and take up, once more, the burden of love.
Iron Hearted Violet was a book that held my attention raptly, but one that made me so sad and discouraged in its middle section that it was painful to keep reading. But that was never an option, because I was so interested I needed to go on...
It was a book that made pictures in my mind (which is important to me), and looking back on it, I find that the pictures are clearest of the two places on which the book hinges most deeply....the two places where the heart of the matter lies--the hidden room deep within, and the enclosure outside in which the last dragon is imprisoned (for his own good--the king does not wish him ill). It's a book full of stories told and lived and changed....and I am always a sucker for books in which such stories are key to the change that must happen for there to be a happy ending.
It's a book that I won't give to my nine year old, because it is too sad. But it's a book that I think will be just right for the right reader--the dreamy 11 or 12 year old girl, or the grown-up who still appreciates "children's books" without getting all critical because of them not being written for adults. Except, that is, for those like me who don't like it when things go deeply wrong for young protagonists. It's a book I think I might like much more the second time around, knowing that it will be ok! (That being said, the black and white illustrations by Iacopo Bruno were rather warmly comforting in their small details, which was a help to me).
One very personal thing that kept me from loving this one is that
Violet, under the influence of events, becomes rather unsympathetic for
much of the middle. So not only are things going wrong in general, but
instead of rooting for Violet, I found myself wanting to shake her
somewhat. Edited to add: happily, she throws off the enchantment while there is still much of the book left to read and enjoy, and I became able to root for the new, heroic Violet whole-heartedly. A second thing I didn't care for (and again, this is personal)-- there's an intrusive narrator, the court storyteller, who didn't add much value for me.
Still, it was thought-provoking, and magical, and strong...and I really hope that some of you who are regular readers read it too and tell me what you think! I'd recommend it in particular to anyone who enjoyed Reckless, by Cornelia Funke (though this skews slightly younger).
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.