I’m glad I borrowed Never After, by Rebecca Lickiss, from the library.
Instead of actually buying it.
This book annoyed me quite considerably. A full explanation requires spoilers, which I’ll be posting to sf.written; a link will be in the comments, as usual. Here’s the setup: a prince goes looking for a princess, because his parents have decreed he can only marry an actual princess—mostly because they don’t like his cousin, Vevila, and are afraid he might marry her otherwise. The prince finds a castle behind brambles, complete with sleeping inhabitants and not one, not two, but three—princes. One “s” only. He also finds a sleeping woman who he’s convinced is a princess and would marry if she weren’t, you know, so asleep. So he goes to get his cousin Vevila, on the theory that she’s much smarter than she is and could figure it out. He runs into Vevila on the road; she’s run away from court, rather than be married off to her suitors, etc. Along the way they also pick up some wizards.
Back at the castle, they discover that the caster of the spell is still around: she’s the prince’s fairy godmother, protecting him from evil (or, Eeeevil) by keeping him away from the world. (She also divided him when he was a child, to protect him from assassins.) The witch has no intention of actually letting anyone break the spell, because that would mean her beloved godchild would be back in the world again. So she subjects Vevila to a princess test (spin straw into gold) before she’ll even let Vevila try to kiss the princes. Also, along the way, she curses one of the wizards so that he can only talk in Shakespeare quotes (which the wizards all know, even though they state he’s from a different world. Which is never explained.). As the story goes on, alleged princesses and princess tests proliferate, Rumpelstiltskin shows up, there’s a pumpkin carriage and a ball, and eventually everyone is subjected to a Happy Ending.
First of all, this has been done before, and better, by at least two different authors: Patricia Wrede, in her Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Terry Pratchett, in Witches Abroad. (I do hope the author hasn’t read Witches Abroad, or if she did, that she meant the “cat turned into servant for Cinderella’s ball, acts like a, well, tomcat in human form” episode as a tribute to Greebo . . . ) Three, counting John Barnes’s One for the Morning Glory, I suppose. So any charm that originality might lend is lost on me.
Second, there are too many characters, and too few of them have any depth. Third, they all have horrible names; even for a parody-fairy tale, this is going too far. Althelstan. Vevila. Mazigian. Urticacea. Berengaria. Jaquenetta. You get the idea.
Fourth, fifth, and nth, the ending. Oh, the ending.
Okay. We’ve got a story that’s structured around fairy tale elements, specifically princess tests. The story uses these elements to deconstruct the idea of “royalty,” and to point out that a person’s status as a princess is socially constructed. Great, fine, no problem. Now, having gone to all the trouble of undermining one of the key conventions of fairy tales, why would the story turn around and subject its characters to the most unthinking and conventional kind of Happy Ending there is? It’s absolutely baffling, extremely unsatisfying, and a complete compromise of the characters.
And then the story takes the idea that royalty is purely socially constructed, and tries to extend it to claim that personality traits are also purely socially constructed. Which I find offensive. If the question is whether someone is, say, generous and charitable, then it actually matters if that person gives stuff away.
It’s possible that this extension was meant to be limited to magic, but that’s not how it reads to me. And I reject the idea, particularly when presented as the moral insight of the story.
If you want fairy tale elements twisted around in light fantasy, read the other books I mentioned above. Avoid this one.