M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess would be one of my favorite books if I’d read it when I was, say, ten years old. Reading it for the first time now, I found it charming but unsurprising and pitched a little younger than I prefer.
As is traditional in the country of Phantasmorania, all fairies are invited to the christening of a seventh royal daughter. (The royal family always has daughters. Travelers, we are told, object upon hearing this that the country has a king; the townspeople respond, “Ah yes; but by tradition the heir to the throne is always the youngest son of the eldest princess. It’s very simple.” It’s a quietly tongue-in-cheek book.) Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Ataminta Adelaide Aurealia Anne doesn’t have an evil fairy show up at her christening, but she does have a somewhat cranky water fairy get dehydrated while delayed in traffic.
Old Crustacea put out a long bony finger and touched the seventh princess’s pink cheek. Then she looked at the King and Queen and the resplendent guests and the six little sister princesses, each more beautiful than the last, and finally she looked at the huge pile of glittering presents and the list that the Lord High Chamberlain had made of the gifts bestowed by the other fairies.
“Hmm!” said the Fairy Crustacea. “Wit, Charm, Courage, Health, Wisdom, Grace . . . Good gracious, poor child! Well, thank goodness my magic is stronger than anyone else’s.”
She raised her twisty coral stick and waved it three times over the cradle of the seventh princess. “My child,” said the Fairy Crustacea, “I am going to give you something that will probably bring you more happineess than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be Ordinary!”
Amy grows up gawky and somewhat tomboy-ish and not at all beautiful, until her parents quite despair of marrying her off. They finally decide to hire a dragon to lay waste to the countryside, on the theory that when a prince kills it, he’ll have to marry Amy, Ordinaryness and all. Amy gets wind of this, disapproves strongly, and runs off.
After a couple of months of living on nuts and berries in a forest (and taming a squirrel and a crow—fortunately this period is skipped over, because it’s a bit eye-roll inducing), Amy finds that her dress is falling apart, and takes a job as the thirteenth assistant kitchen maid in a neighboring country’s palace to earn the money to replace it. She meets a nice young man who calls himself a man-of-all-work while cleaning up after a banquet, and if you can’t spot where this is going, you’ve never read a fairy tale before.
This was published in 1980, so I can’t really blame it for not surprising me. Since then, things like Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles or Will Shetterly’s “The Princess Who Kicked Butt” have worked similiar terrority, and I happened to read those first. But this is a nice premise told with a sweet and simple charm, and would probably be great for a ten-year-old new to the genre.