The Cup and the Crown, by Diane Stanley (HarperCollins, October 2012) is the sequel to The Silver Bowl, in which a young castle kitchen maid named Molly discovered gifts of magic that enabled her to save the royal family. In this second book, Molly, now a lady of the realm, is asked by the young king Alaric to seek out a magical goblet that will ensure he wins the heart of the beautiful princess of the neighboring country (a necessary alliance). These loving cups were made by Molly's own grandfather long ago, and Molly has been seeing one in her dreams...
So off go Molly, her ex-stable boy/now lordly friend Tobias, and three other companions. And soon it seems as though a raven wishes to accompany them...which indeed it does (with great import later in the story).
The journey takes them past the town where Molly's grandfather had had his workshop, and into the hidden mountain kingdom where he had been born. There the companions find a place where magical abilities, such as the grandfather's skill at mixing magic and metal, are common, a place ruled by those with the greatest powers. And there Molly finds that her own gifts are much more powerful than she had realized, and because of that, she is welcomed.
Catch number one--none off them are ever going to be allowed to leave. Catch number two-- the current most powerful of the rulers is a nasty piece of work.
It's the sort of slow but steady fantasy that makes for a good, engrossing comfort read. No slashings and crashings, but rather journeying and discovering, and lots details and magics, and enough character development to content me. It's possible that some might feel that not enough Happens, but there was plenty for my taste, especially once it becomes clear that the hidden kingdom is a dangerous trap and Escape (with magical ravenly help, and practical help from a man who may well be my favorite fictional rat-catcher) must be masterminded. For what it's worth, I read it in a single sitting.
And it's possible that some might feel frustrated with the romantic side of things--in a young adult novel, Molly would be actively caught in a love triangle (King Alaric, who possibly feels something for her, vs old friend Tobias, who is most certainly falling in love with her), and she would be fretting about her own feelings. Here in middle grade, the reader is left to wonder...and must, perforce, let Molly continue to be young and not yet ready for love. (I can't decide who I think she should end up with, and hope that Diane Stanley will write a third book and tell me!).
In short--a really nice fantasy for the nine to ten year old girl.
Though it's a sequel, The Cup and the Crown can be quite easily read as a stand-alone. The author manages to avoided awkwardly dumping in the story of The Silver Bowl, instead referencing those events enough so as to provide solid ground for a new reader.
Interesting aside: Of course ravens seem to be popping up everywhere, but I couldn't help but notice that this was one of two recent mg sff books (the other being The Brixen Witch) in which a rat catcher plays an important role. Is Rat Catching the new big thing???? (probably not).