When I heard that Patricia C. Wrede was publishing a new book for the first time in 10 years, I gasped. Then I forwarded the news to multiple people with a screaming emoji appended.
Patricia C. Wrede’s middle-grade novels are the kind of books that I can best describe as “formative.” You encounter them when you’re 8 or 9 or 10, fall madly in love with their no-nonsense wit and warm charm, and then use them as the basis of your personality for months after reading them.
Wrede’s new book, The Dark Lord’s Daughter, deals with a thoroughly normal 14-year-old girl who finds herself abruptly transported to a magical kingdom, where everyone expects her to reign in splendor and terror as their Dark Lady. It will surely find favors with the children of today. But for me, and for the rest of the Wrede addicts who first met her in the 1990s, her greatest achievement will always be The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are a quartet Wrede wrote from 1985 to 1993. It features a group of unconventional fairy tale characters (a princess, a king, a witch, and an adventuring boy) who face the whimsy and chaos of their magical land with determined practicality. In the Enchanted Forest, talking squirrels hand out advice to questing heroes, and you can bet every single one of Wrede’s protagonists knows better than to ignore it.
The final volume of the series, Talking to Dragons, was originally the first volume, with the others intended to serve as its prequels. Once the whole quartet was out, Wrede’s publishers shuffled the series around to follow the events of the story so that Book One is now Dealing With Dragons, which is where I started. I still think it’s the best place for anyone new to Wrede to begin, if only because Dealing With Dragons is the book built around Wrede’s best character, Princess Cimorene.
Princess Cimorene hails from the kingdom of Linderwall, “where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.” (Isn’t there always a magic number in a fairy tale?) Thoroughly bored with the schooling her parents offer her, she runs away and volunteers to be the princess of a dragon, on the grounds that such a vocation is both “perfectly respectable” and also “much more interesting than embroidery or dancing lessons.” The dragon Kazul, in the meantime, is intrigued by the prospect of a princess who can make cherries jubilee and conjugate Latin verbs. (Kazul’s library needs organizing.)
Cimorene embodies the spirit of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which are at their heart novels about process and procedure. Much of the action of Dealing With Dragons consists of Cimorene researching a fireproofing spell, sourcing its most obscure ingredients, and then experimenting with its nuances. The result is charming rather than tedious, mostly because Cimorene takes such obvious nerdy joy in the process. Wrede’s characters are tech geeks in a magical world, obsessed with technicalities and efficiency.
In part, that’s because the characters of this world know they have to follow the tropes of their fairy tales, and as such they place great store by understanding the rules of the world they live in. One young hero is unwise enough to volunteer for a king’s quest after the two eldest princes have tried and failed but before the youngest has succeeded. He berates himself thoroughly. “Anyone with sense would have seen that the youngest son was the one who would succeed,” he laments. “It sticks out all over.”
Cimorene is a rule-breaker in a way that was still refreshingly subversive when she first appeared in 1987. (Two decades of sprightly and rule-hating YA heroines have since done a number on this trope.) Yet even rebellious Cimorene knows she has to understand the rules in order to convince them to bend. She likes the idea of working for a dragon in part because she knows it’s a respectable thing for princesses to do. She has a lawyerly flair when it comes to negotiating her way around a tricky rule. When a djinn tells her he has to kill her but he’ll allow her to choose her method of death, Cimorene convinces him that the best method would be to have her die of old age.
The other way in which Cimorene is the archetypal Wrede character is that she is unfailingly practical. She researches a fireproofing spell because of course she’ll need one if she’s living with dragons. When the djinn offers to grant her a single wish, she asks for powdered hen’s teeth, which is one of the ingredients she needs to do her spell. Wrede writes, always, in celebration of practicality, of common sense, of everyday domestic virtues like having good manners and keeping a clean house. (One particularly meddlesome villain is dispatched by being doused with soapy water spiked with lemon juice.)
Cimorene’s only competition when it comes to practicality is one of Wrede’s other most enduring characters, Morwen the witch. Morwen lives in a cottage in the woods surrounded by cats, with a sign above her door instructing visitors that she’ll have “none of this nonsense, please,” and an apple tree which she has arranged to always be in fruit. She and Cimorene become friends immediately and start swapping recipes both magical and mundane.
Since Wrede first wrote Dealing With Dragons, fairy tale spoofs have become fashionable to the point of cliché. Wrede’s successors could learn from her light touch. She handles her material delicately, always with affection and never too literally. Her magic feels magical, not like science fiction by another name.
Wrede also wrote before the standard rebuttal to 1990s girl power fantasy was to pour scorn on the Not Like Other Girls heroines of the era. Cimorene, it must be said, is assuredly Not Like Other Girls. She is constantly compared to other, lesser princesses: Cimorene is tall and black-haired where they are little and blonde, and she is smart and bold where they are timid and empty-headed.
Still, Cimorene does develop a friendship with her fellow princess Alianora, who meets the little and blonde requirements of conventional princessery but has failed at most of the others. While Alianora is accomplished at needlework and dancing, she never manages to get herself cursed in a way that will allow a prince to rescue her. Her plotline pokes sly fun at the problem of conventional femininity: Alianora fits the mold in a way Cimorene chooses not to, but her family still won’t consider her a proper woman because they don’t think she’s suffered enough.
Between the two of them, Alianora and Cimorene make the case for Dealing With Dragons as a celebration of anyone who finds themselves unwilling or unable to meet the expectations the world sets for them — which is, after all, pretty much all of us. It is certainly most characters in a Wrede book. Even Morwen, who wears long black robes because they are comfortable and practical rather than because they are expected, finds herself on the wrong side of the witch’s counsel from time to time.
The joy of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles is that they argue for us to make our own ways forward with grace and dignity and common sense, plus copious warnings to always be polite when you’re talking to dragons. There are worse stories to build your personality around.