The British author M.M. Kaye is perhaps best known to American audiences for her works The Far Pavilions (made into HBO’s first ever mini-series back in the 1980s) and Shadow of the Moon. A pity: these are her two weakest works. She also wrote a series of mystery novels, with a touch of romantic suspense (just a touch) based largely on her experiences of traveling through the British Empire either to visit friends or to join her husband, Major-General Goff Hamilton. And, as I was recently informed by Tor.com readers, she wrote an utterly delightful fairy tale for children: The Ordinary Princess, written in the 1930s but not published until 1980, when her publishers were eager to follow up on the success of The Far Pavilions. It’s difficult to imagine two more dissimilar works from one author.
As Kaye explains in her introduction, she wrote The Ordinary Princess in reaction to reading the fairy tales collected and edited by Andrew Lang in the various colored fairy tale books. As Kaye notes, with the exception of Snow White, all of these tales featured beautiful, tall, elegant, blond, blue eyed princesses. Where, Kaye asked with dismay, were the tales of other princesses, the ones that didn’t fit this blond blue eyed pattern, the ones who were—how do we say this? Ordinary? And so she wrote one.
(For the record, Kaye herself went on to write about many strikingly beautiful heroines, not all with blond hair. Some had red hair. Some brown. And yes, some blonde. Moving on.)
As in many of the best fairy tales, The Ordinary Princess begins with the birth of, well, a princess. Since she is the seventh princess, and thus, the youngest and prettiest, naturally, she has to have a christening, properly attended by fairy godmothers. Or maybe not so naturally. The king, a direct descendent of Sleeping Beauty, protests strongly against the idea of inviting any fairy godmothers whatsoever, pointing out that this never goes well. (As a scholar of fairy tales myself, I have to agree with him.) His chancellors and queen overrule him, saying that it’s tradition, and that they will be very, very, very careful to invite each and every fairy and treat the fairies with every courtesy.
Unfortunately, one of the fairies gets stuck in traffic. Understandably irritable, she decides to give the princess a very special gift: she makes the princess ordinary. Immediately, everyone panics or passes out or both, except for the princess, who decides that now is time to make herself popular by crying.
And since you can’t call an ordinary princess by the elaborately silly name Princess Amethyst, the princess also gains a rather ordinary name: Amy.
As it turns out, though, the only really ordinary thing about Amy is her looks: she has a snub nose and freckles and rather mousy boring hair. That might not seem extraordinary for real life princesses, not always known for their good looks, but it is odd, as Kaye notes, for fairy tale princesses. Her looks allow her to blend in with, well, regular folks when need be.
But they hardly make her ordinary. After all, she’s a princess, and still has six other fairy gifts. And she’s remarkably self-possessed, hardly even envying her more beautiful, graceful sisters. This feels a bit contrived. I’m glad for the nice moral lesson that looks aren’t everything, and I agree that Amy certainly seems to be having more fun than her sisters, but some envy would only be natural, particularly given that everyone consistently keeps making highly critical comments about, or expressing disappointment in her looks.
But if Amy doesn’t seem to have a problem with her looks, the kingdom does, mostly because—gasp—the superficial princes and nobles of this fairy tale world simply can’t, but can’t, marry a princess who isn’t drop dead gorgeous. This is a calamity: the kingdom has always managed to marry off each and every one of its princesses, even the one who slept for one hundred years. In a panic, the king and his councilors actually decide to purchase a dragon to lay waste to the countryside, since that will of course attract a prince who in the glory of dragon-defeating will be willing to marry Amy. (The best part of this hilarious scene is finding out that this world actually has dragons who can be purchased for specific purposes, including laying waste to innocent countrysides.) Amy, hearing of the plan to spend considerable sums of money on the dragon for her benefit, is not flattered, but irritated, and decides to run away.
And, like any ordinary girl, she gets a job. And meets a guy. And a squirrel.
Look, it’s a fairy tale. You can almost certainly guess the ending—even if the protagonists don’t. It has some distinctly and occasionally awkwardly contrived moments. It more than once beggars disbelief (I have difficulties believing that any princess accustomed to luxury, however good natured, would adjust that quickly to a servant role, even if Kaye did steal this plot point directly from multiple fairy tales.) The romantic dialogue sounds as if it was either directly cribbed from, or later reused in, at least two of Kaye’s other books (Death in Berlin and Death in Kashmir).
But for all that, it’s also an absolute delight, with laugh out loud funny moments, sly comments about various governmental positions and certain parasitic types of royalty, and a genuine, warm and lovely romance. And if Kaye reused her dialogue later, suggesting that she the most part clung to a very specific sort of romantic hero, it works well here, creating a warm and often funny relationship between two people who really learn to like each other. And, as much as it pokes fun at fairy tales, it is a fairy tale, complete with a journey, true love, and yes—a fairy godmother. And just a suggestion that maybe it’s wise, after all, to invite those troublesome fairies to the christening of your baby princess, however much trouble they may seem to cause.
Mari Ness is beginning to think that fairy tale godmothers should be monitored and licensed. She lives in central Florida.