Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
In The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, Christopher Healy seems to have distilled all the elements of the most entertaining Disney movies, and then carefully reassembled them into this book, which leaves the famous princesses alone (for the most part) to focus on Prince Charming—or rather Princes Charming, since no less than four young men get saddled with the moniker at the beginning of the story. Irritated by negative-to-nonexistent media portrayal (and the “media” here means bards’ tales), each one decides to change his fate.
Like a well-balanced adventuring party, we’ve got four princes all with distinct (and nicely complementary) strengths and weaknesses. There’s the bruiser Gustav, who found and lost Rapunzel. Fancy Frederick is the dude who wooed and bored Cinderella. Heroic Liam awoke Sleeping Beauty only to discover that the world was better off with her unconscious. And finally, Snow White’s savior Duncan proves to be a eccentric goofball of the first order, too coo-coo even for her to tolerate for long. (FWIW, Duncan was my favorite.)
When a local witch goes wicked, the four are brought together by chance (or possibly fate). They realize that they must work together to save all their kingdoms, which are, amusingly, all about a day’s ride apart. In fact, the geography, like the characters, fits remarkably well into Walt’s Magic Kingdom. Disney references abound, but there are also a few nods to other mythologies, like Star Wars.
Plot? Well, the boys run to and fro, getting into and out of scrapes, only to fall into bigger ones…and of course, everything more or less falls into place at the end.
This is a boys’ book, but ironically, the most competent hero/ines and villains are female. Cinderella, having left Frederick to have adventures, takes it upon herself to foil the witch’s plan, totally independent of the boys’ quest. Liam’s little sister, Princess Lila, is a spitfire of a character who sneaks out of her room to battle injustice and restore her brother’s good name. And Rapunzel uses her healing tears to band-aid up anyone who needs it. On the dark side, the witch is the major baddie, but Briar Rose is impressively mean as a spoiled brat with too much power.
Despite the grandiose title, the stakes here are not that high, and the plot zips along at a breakneck pace—chapters are often less than ten pages. There is simply no time for boredom. The language works to keep things moving too, with deliberately fast and modern phrasings; at one point, a character squeals, “It’s so awesome that you made it!” In tone, it feels closer to Tangled, than say, Beauty and the Beast. Others feel this way too…the movie rights were acquired before the book was even released.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Everyone in this story is pretty white, in an “it’s unstated so go ahead and assume that” kind of way. But there are Trolls, a race that is frequently misunderstood, ostracized, and blamed for events they had nothing to do with. The interactions the princes have with some Trolls show them that in fact “trolls are people too” and that human people need to treat other people with respect.
Despite the talk of marriage and fiancees and what not, the book is firmly intermediate. “Marriage” seems to indicate a vague political alliance among parent monarchs, and an agreement to be friends. In fact, let’s not get more into it, because if we actually tried to break down the details of relationship theory in the Hero’s Guide, things would rapidly get weird. Suffice it to sat that nothing more than a few spell-breaking kisses occur (apart from one fancy kiss on the hand). There is a broad hint late in the book that two of the princes ended up with the wrong girls, but no wife-swapping is discussed, and everything ends kinda sorta where it started. As I said, any deeper discussion would be weird.
Note from ayvalentine:
I’m currently reading this out loud with my kids and they’re loving it. They frequently laugh out loud. It’s full of intricate pencil sketches and I’m certain that the kids will bicker about who gets possession of this book first once we’re done reading. Of course the adventuring princes get into fights, but it’s all on a rated G level and frequently conflicts are better solved without violence. Duncan and Fredrick are hopeless fighters, but they bring other strengths to the party.
In all, the story is light-hearted, good-hearted, and unchallenging without being condescending. It should be fun for fantasy fans, good for reluctant readers, great for boys and girls alike, and even fun for adults (who can enjoy a game of Catch the Reference). Oh, and there’s a dragon. Hot-diggidy dog.