Who could go past a title with such an alluring and obvious exclamation mark in the title?
Not us, that’s for sure.
Especially when it is penned by Australian YA and fantasy powerhouse Garth Nix. We received a copy of Frogkisser! from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
The Last Thing She Needs Is a Prince.
The First Thing She Needs Is Some Magic.
Poor Princess Anya. Forced to live with her evil stepmother’s new husband, her evil stepstepfather. Plagued with an unfortunate ability to break curses with a magic-assisted kiss. And forced to go on the run when her stepstepfather decides to make the kingdom entirely his own.
Aided by a loyal talking dog, a boy thief trapped in the body of a newt, and some extraordinarily mischievous wizards, Anya sets off on a Quest that, if she plays it right, will ultimately free her land-and teach her a thing or two about the use of power, the effectiveness of a well-placed pucker, and the finding of friends in places both high and low.
With Frogkisser!, acclaimed bestselling author Garth Nix has conjured a fantastical tale for all ages, full of laughs and danger, surprises and delights, and an immense population of frogs. It’s 50% fairy tale, 50% fantasy, and 100% pure enjoyment from start to finish.
Although Nix’s work is often touted as YA, it fits just as neatly into the plain old fantasy category, to be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Frogkisser! is no different in this regard, for while it features a reasonably young protagonist, it’s packed full of adult characters (temporarily transformed into animals and otherwise) and is reminiscent of the work of Terry Pratchet and Piers Anthony (although much less punny and of much higher quality than the latter).
Anya is the second-eldest princess in her castle which is ruled over by her stepmother and stepstepfather after the death of both her parents…at different times…which explains why she has two stepparents. Her older sister Morven is due to inherit the kingdom of Trallonia and become ruler when she comes of age, but is reasonably vacuous and distracted by handsome princes, and their stepstepfather, the evil Duke, is using his sorcery to keep her that way so that he can take over the kingdom. Anya, being another roadblock for the megalomaniacal Duke, leaves on a quest to transform one of Morven’s suitors, Prince Denholm, back from the frog form into which he has been spelled, and thus avoids (by a slim margin) being murdered in her bed.
The story features all the types of characters you’d expect from a comedy-fantasy, with talking royal dogs (my favourites), a thief-turned-into-a-newt, an otter turned into a human-otter-thing, good wizards, retired wizards, dwarves, giants, thieves and witches, among others. The tone is light throughout, even during the suspenseful parts, and doused with dry humour (if it’s possible to be doused with dryness, that is). The plot is quite episodic as these stories often are, with Anya having to meet and overcome a variety of quirky stumbling blocks along her road toward the ingredients for frog-transforming lip balm.
The best thing about this book is that Anya, initially, is completely out for number one – in a self-focused, rather than self-centred way – and along the way she must ponder whether or not it is worth it for her to get involved in the bigger issues facing the kingdoms and their citizens. Issues about justice in governance, the rules of succession and the obligations of richer people to poorer people, for instance. Underlying the entertainment factors of fantasy and humour in the story is a subtle exploration of privilege, and the responsibilities (if any) that the more privileged in society have toward those without power and without the means to gain agency in their own lives. Nix has been a bit clever here, popping such a topical issue neatly into a fun and fantastic jaunt through another world.
Tropes about princesses are both reinforced and turned on their head in the story, with Anya’s and Morven’s paths diverging, but in ways that make sense for the respective characters. I actually understood Morven’s vibe to an extent, because we have our own Prince Maggers who turns up on our back deck most days to regale us with delightful tunes.
I enjoyed reading this story because of the familiarity of the humor and fantasy elements and the original, yet slightly expected, characters. I mean, you can’t really have a fantasy quest without at least one animal transformed into a human or vice versa, can you? Having said that, Gerald the Herald (all of them) gave me a good chuckle every time he/she/they appeared. Frogkisser! is certainly a change of pace from Nix’s Abhorsen series but at the same time another worthy addition to Australian fantasy and YA writing.
Until next time,