Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Wolf Princess, by Cathryn Constable

The Wolf PrincessSophie Smith is an orphan. With only snatches of memory and a piece of special glass to remind her of her father, she endures a dreary boarding school in London, but dreams of adventure, of forests and snow. Hoping against hope, she can barely believe her luck when she and her friends land a place on the school trip to St. Petersburg in Russia. But things don’t go quite to plan once they arrive. First their host abandons them on the train, then they’re pushed out a station not only in the middle of nowhere, but in the middle of a raging blizzard; and then they’re collected by a bear of a man, Ivan, who takes them to stay with the mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya at her Winter Palace.

The girls aren’t quite sure what make of the Princess, who is by turns beautiful and warm, then cold, distant, and raging. But who is the Princess really? Why is the Palace so run down? And why does she seem to have such a particular interest in a scrappy little orphan like Sophie?

The Wolf Princess invokes the perfect feeling from page one, a feeling that ties in just right with the cover artwork. It opens with a dream that turns out, later on, to be rather important , and just lovely writing. Styled in quite a traditional way, with three friends - the smart one, the beautiful one, and the one stuck in the middle - an enemy, a turncoat, a twist, a mystery to be solved, and a life-or-death showdown. It could be said that this is not especially original, but its a format that works so well it simply can’t be argued with. With elements of fairytale and packed full of adventure, The Wolf Princess ticks all the right boxes for 9-12 year-old fiction. In places it reminded me of my favourites, Eva Ibbotson, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and it has a magical feeling that no ten year old could fail to fall in love with.

From the moment the girls first meet her, the Princess is presented as an enigma, so beautiful that Sophie can barely remove her eyes, yet Cathryn Constable, right from the outset, drops in quiet hints that all is not quite as it might seem. This is perfect plotting - when things start to take a new direction, it’s not out of character or a shock to the system. As an experienced adult reader, I did find this very easy to suss out, and thus very predictable, but I’m sure that a younger reader would find it pitched at just the right level. Additionally, I felt that there were a handful of plot-holes - of conveniences, as it were - particularly toward the end of the book. Aside from being questionable, this gave me the impression that Constable rushed the ending a tad, without necessarily thinking through the small print.

My two main niggles are, firstly, exactly how the Princess located Sophie in the first place. If Sophie’s family knew nothing of her heritage, how on earth did the Princess work it out?
And secondly, I love the idea of the ‘Wolf’ Princess, the Palace with all of it’s wolfy references, and the wolves themselves. But, as the story tells us, if the last Princess was the first one to tame a wolf, why exactly is the palace, which is hundreds of years old, full of these references? Given this, it would have been much more effective to have made the whole line of Volkonskys wolf tamers. However, this said, if I was ten again and reading it, if I even noticed these quibbles, I doubt they would detract from my enjoyment and appreciation of the story.

Overall, The Wolf Princess is a well crafted story in a traditional and magical vein. The descriptions and the action scenes are vivid: as I read I could picture the events movie-style and was itching to get to the Winter Palace myself. It will make perfect autumn reading for dreamy youngsters.

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