Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
In The Wolf Princess, the orphaned Sophie Smith gets to leave dreary London and go St Petersburg on a school trip, and she’s overjoyed. She is strangely attracted to the romantic history and storybook snows of Russia. However, a “mix-up” leaves Sophie and her two best friends (smart Marianne and sophisticated Delphine) on a deserted railway platform in the middle of a snowstorm. Just when they fear that they’ll die of cold, a steam train arrives and their real adventure begins, because the beautiful, mysterious Princess Anna Feodorovna Volkonskaya has invited them to her Winter Palace. Seduced by the shabby, fairy tale beauty of the Palace, Sophie doesn’t think too much about how the Princess found them, or why the Princess wants her to be there, but she soon discovers that the Wolf Princess hides a number of secrets.
The novel reads like a fairy tale, where atmosphere overrides logic, even though Russian history plays a big role in the plot. The descriptions of the landscape and the Palace are straight out of The Nutcracker’s Snow Forest…all white drifts, slender birches and pines, and diamonds in the air. It’s magical and a little bit sinister, with a lovely creepy feeling that slowly builds until the revelation of the true villains, where the story shifts to a more red-blooded adventure/caper as the heroes search for a long-lost diamond necklace that can save the Wolf Princess’s fortunes.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Sophie and her friends seem to be around 13-14 years old. They should be a little more alert to the weirdness (okay, duplicitousness) of the adults around them as those adults separate them from the group and get them to the Palace. Similarly, Sophie is too naive to guess that the Princess has ulterior motives, even when others hint broadly at it. It gets unbelievable, especially as there are a ton of clues as to Sophie’s true parentage.
Sophie is an orphan, and her legal guardian is totally absent from her life and explicitly uncaring (think a more hands-off Dursley). Sophie doesn’t remember her mother, but she misses her father, who died several years before the story starts. She envies the more normal families of her friends, and she likes the family of Dmitri, who all work as servants/caretakers of the Volkonsky Palace. When she discovers that she is a Volkonskaya, the true Wolf Princess, she is more happy about finding her heritage than she is about the idea of being a princess, which is nice.
There are several stories told about violent incidents in the past, such as the murder by revolutionaries of the Palace’s Prince Vladimir, and the white wolves who attack and kill his murderers. Also, one of the villains, General Grekov, constantly uses the threat of violence to scare everyone into doing what he wants…the caricature of the Evil Russian Military Man. The only “on screen” death is that of Anna, who falls through ice and disappears at the end of the book, although its clear that she dies almost instantly (due to the freezing temperatures). It’s affecting, but not grisly.
The behavior of adults is so typical of a middle grade story featuring an orphan. Kindhearted adults are not powerful enough to really aid the protagonist, and mean adults make the protagonist’s life miserable. The burly Russian Vladimir is stereotypical in his bluff, hearty kindness, and serves as the perfect father-figure-as-servant character. Princess Anna’s reveal as a villain is the harshest reversal; Sophie is very hurt by Anna’s cruelty because she admired the would-be Wolf Princess so much.
The Volkonsky family and the estate are protected by a pack of nearly-magical white wolves. When they appear on the scene, they are a little scary, and do some violence. But since Sophie turns out to be Sophie Volkonskaya, she is safe, as are her friends.
This is a well-written tale that uses a very romantic, storybook style of language to set the mood and to flesh out a fairly simple plot. Kids with an interest in Russia will enjoy the setting and the history. Unfortunately, the story might be a hard sell to boys, what with the focus on the princess, the diamonds, and the mostly female cast. Still, it’s lovely and a bit different from the usual fare.
The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable
Published in 2013 by Chicken House
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