Pennyroyal Academy is a story of a young girl who joins a military academy where girls study to become princesses who can fight witches while boys study to become knights who can fight dragons. You just have to accept the terms princess and knight—they’re titles conferred upon completion of the course (But they’re not parallel terms! you might yell if you’re me. Oh, well. You have to deal.). It’s a world where Grimm’s fairytales are true, and the famous characters are all graduates of the Academy. Why do we know their stories? Because fairies are the keepers of history (FAIRYtales. Duh.).
Our heroine doesn’t really remember where she’s from or why she’s headed to the Academy. She only knows that she needs to get there. She does have a memory curse that causes some amnesia, but on top of that she refuses to share some aspects of her past, even with the reader. Since the book is told from her point of view, that’s kind of off-putting at first. I couldn’t figure out why I should care about what happens to this prickly silent girl who is paralyzed by fear and won’t share anything about herself. Eventually, though, it gets better.
Princesses must have courage and compassion—these are the weapons they have against the fear that witches instill. This fairly brutal and competitive boot camp is intended to weed out those who lack the courage and compassion to face a witch. Because the witches have started invading small towns and a full scale war is brewing, the Academy decides to admit anyone who wants to try. There’s much doubt about whether those of lowly blood can hack it, and it’s assumed that our heroine is one of those people. Since she can’t remember her name, she’s listed as Cadet Eleven, which her new friends shorten to Evie. Of course she turns out to be more than anyone expects.
It’s an interesting setting with some interesting fantasy politics thrown in. It definitely seems to be setting up a series as the Cadets proceed through the Academy and get drawn into the war.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Violence and Scary Stuff
The witches are pretty terrifying, and the book opens with our heroine encountering a witch. The witches, in addition to the usual curses and spells, project fear and despair, not unlike a Dementor attack. They capture kids and eat their hearts. They enchant woods to be predatory like the scene from Disney’s Snow White. There are several times when characters’ lives are in very real danger, and at the beginning of the book our heroine feels helpless in the face of it—sometimes frustratingly so.
While the dragons are also pretty terrifying, there’s some nuance to them. Not so of the witches—they are almost universally evil. There are descriptions of dragons attacking and killing people, but it’s told through story primarily. The only dragon attack in the book is one intended to create a diversion rather than harm any humans.
Anyway, with witches, dragons, wolves, curses, and dark woods, there’s plenty in the book to potentially fuel the nightmares of younger readers.
Sexism, Stereotypes, and Teasing
There is, of course, the whole princess and knight thing going on. Princesses must be courageous and compassionate, using their hearts as weapons against the witches. Knights get to kill dragons with sharp stuff. But the master dressmaker is a male troll, which is atypical on both fronts. The spinning skills he teaches also serve as fight training, so even the skills of girls can be used in battle. The girls train hard physically, often alongside the knights. They occasionally fight against the knights as well. In practice, the training for princesses is nearly as physically difficult as the training for knights.
Remington, who somehow always seems to be there for Evie’s life-threatening experiences, says that he’s always saving her. Since she saves him just as often, he seems to be mostly joking about this, saying what’s expected of a knight to show that it’s a little silly.
Basil is the youngest of 22 boys. His mother sends him to Pennyroyal Academy to train as a princess, not a knight. Although many people think this is odd, there’s apparently no actual gender requirement for princesses. Everyone expects him to drop out, and there’s plenty of teasing which he needs to put up with, but he hangs in there and he’s good at being a princess. He’s not required to wear a dress or anything, and he stays in the barracks with the girls rather than being isolated. Evie and her friends accept him into their group as one of the princesses. One of the knights chooses to fight against Basil because he doesn’t want to fight a girl. There was one somewhat cruel moment when his name was announced as one of the princesses for the ball which would mean he’d be partnered with a knight, and everyone seemed to know that wouldn’t actually happen. It was done as a joke to lighten up the situation, but it seemed to me to be at his expense, even if he took it in stride.
Forbes used to be a pig due to a curse (it’s kind of intense when he turns back into a human—the transformation seems really painful). Although the curse is broken, he’s still teased pretty relentlessly about having been a pig. These kids don’t let things go easily.
That said, among friends very little surprises or horrifies the others. When shocking secrets of parentage are shared, everyone takes it in stride. When fears are expressed, friends are supportive and helpful.
Malora is set up as a rival for Evie early on. She does some really cruel stuff, including destroying the ball gown Evie was sewing as a school project, trying to sabotage girls during physical tests with no concern for their safety, spreading vicious rumors, and starting fights. We learn later that not all of this is under her control, and she shows some nuance towards the end without quite ceasing to be a villain.
Forbes kisses Evie after she seems to break his curse, but she wants none of it. He seems confused by this and is kind of antagonistic toward her as the novel goes on. And then he helps her out, so he’s not completely against her.
Remington is the heartthrob of Pennyroyal Academy. There isn’t really any question of whether or not he and Evie are meant for each other; it’s just a matter of when she figures it out. There’s some kissing, and she sneaks out of her barracks in the middle of the night with him—granted, she doesn’t realize it’s him at first, but she’s glad when she finds out it is. There’s some irrational jealousy and anger, but they get over it.
Well, it’s a land of fairytales, and family in fairytales never run smoothly. The lowborn seem to be better off than the highborn, with more supportive and loving parents. Lack of mothers is a thing several kids are dealing with, as is lack of family in general. As Evie learns more about her past, she realizes that family is a complicated thing and she needs to keep reexamining what she thinks she knows. There’s jealousy of siblings, resentment about familial expectations. The kids mostly have each other, because their families are absent and/or complicated and the adults at the school are actively pruning them out until only the best remain. But the kids do form strong friendships that make them stronger than they could be alone.
In many ways, this is a derivative novel, pulling obviously from fairytales, but also from Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. However, that’s its charm in some ways. Readers will recognize themes and details from other stories they love which may help make this world richer. It’s better for older readers or those who like creepy things—I think it might have kept my kids up when they were younger! I’d recommend it for ages 11 and up in most cases.