Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Review: The Courageous Princess

Tuck yourself in and let Rod Espinosa tell you a story.

The Courageous Princess, written and illustrated by Rod Espinosa. Dark Horse Books: 2007. 238 pages. $14.95. ISBN-10: 1-59307-719-X, ISBN-13: 978-1-59307-719-5.

Rod Espinosa is one of those people. He's not a great writer, but he's such a good storyteller it hardly matters. I have previously written about his epic comic book series, Neotopia, and today I shall discuss one of his earlier, probably better-known, comics. The Courageous Princess is less ambitious than Neotopia and in some ways less refined, but it shows that Espinosa's interests haven't changed: in both works, he's fond of anthropomorphic animals, fantasyscapes, quests, epic battles, and strong heroines. And in both, his artwork is top-notch.

The Courageous Princess opens like an especially pleasant illustrated children's book, depicting the idyllic childhood of Princess Mabelrose, whose parents, King Jeryk and Queen Helena of New Tinsley, are paragons of virtue and good child-rearing:

Queen Helena taught her her how to plant flowers in the royal garden. She also taught her her little daughter how to sew and mend. When night came the queen told her many bedtime stories of faraway lands and daring heroes. Mabelrose loved her mother very much. King Keryk would take her along when he visited their subjects.... To King Jeryk, everyone was important. The king and queen taught their daughter to be humble, kind, and generous. But most important of all, they taught her always to pray. [pp. 9-10]

After the picture-book introduction, the narration ceases and the story moves to a more conventional comic book format in which we meet Mabelrose as an adolescent. She's excited because she's been invited to her first ball in another, more powerful kingdom. But when Mabelrose arrives at the ball, none of the princes will dance with her and all the other princesses make fun of her shabby clothes and her freckles.

Soon after, Mabelrose is kidnapped by a dragon with an unpronounceable name worthy of Lovecraft (Shalathrumnostrium, if you must know), who lives in a gigantic castle surrounded by impenetrable thorns and guarded by trolls. Convinced no prince will come for her because she's neither the fairest nor the richest in the land, Mabelrose orchestrates her own escape, taking with her some of the dragon's favorite items: a bottomless handbag, a magic rope, a camouflaging cloak, a magic ring, and some seven-league boots (or maybe 1/2-league; they don't actually seem to carry her anywhere).

As you can probably guess, Mabelrose soon meets a companion. His name is Spiky, and he happens to be a gregarious talking porcupine who soon becomes Mabelrose's close and faithful friend (and through the rest of the book, I was distracted by the question, "How can it be physically possible to cuddle with a porcupine?"). Mabelrose spends most of the book escaping trolls, meeting interesting magical characters, making friends, freeing people from tyranny, and heading inexorably toward her distant home.

The Courageous Princess makes open references to other works of fantasy. The magic cloak and rope clearly pay homage to the elvish cloaks and rope in The Lord of the Rings and a lionine king is reminiscent of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz receives a more explicit reference, as do a few fairy tales, including "Rapunzel" and "Snow White." A map appearing every once in a while reveals this to be one of those fantasies set in a land surrounded by the settings of other fairy tales, similar to but less manic than Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles. On the map are such places as The Pea Kingdom in which can be found the Town of Mattress Makers, for example.

This is not-so-subtly a coming-of-age story. As already described, the introduction zips through Mabelrose's childhood. Her kidnapping, which occurs when she is an adolescent, is her first prolonged separation from her parents, during which she swiftly learns to rely on her own resources. And near the end, Spiky observes, "Well, you have grown up, you know" (p. 216). This sudden realization of adulthood reminds me of another coming-of-age story, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen;" in that story, the characters leave on an adventure as children, and when they return, they apprehend that they had grown up during their journey.

The religious references are more explicit than in Neotopia: Mabelrose always remembers to pray before meals and bedtime, and her prayers are simple and hardy ones, appropriate for the young audience at which the comic is presumably aimed: "Please bless my father and mother... Please tell them not to worry. I wish I could tell them that I am alive and well. Please bless all my friends back home especially Bess and Kim. Lastly, may a noble prince rescue me soon" (p. 51). Espinosa never beats us over the head with it, but we are probably to understand that prayer is a major source of Mabelrose's strong character. Although the religion is never described, it is apparently monotheistic, though as in Neotopia, Espinosa hints that multiple religions peacefully coexist: a few characters are clearly polytheistic, and Spiky at one point thanks "the briar spirits," perhaps indicating the animals are animists, which seems to me logical for a fairy tale world.

Though I've only read two of his comic series so far, I'm impressed by Rod Espinosa's fantastic and carefully detailed artwork, his highly imaginative worlds, his lovable characters, his good sense of fun, and his wholesomeness. This is one parents will want to sneak away from the kids to read themselves.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Courageous Princess:

Myth Level: High (fairy tales, coming-of-age, universal themes, quest)

Quality: High (excellent artwork, a great story, likable characters)

Ethics/Religion: High (positive depiction of prayer, no objectionable content)
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