It took me a while to get around to wanting to read Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill. It looked and sounded like a book I would love, but it also looks dark and dreary.
In most fairy tales, princesses are beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. This isn't most fairy tales.
Violet is plain, reckless, and quite possibly too clever for her own
good. Particularly when it comes to telling stories. One day she and her
best friend, Demetrius, stumble upon a hidden room and find a peculiar
book. A forbidden book. It tells a story of an evil being -- called the Nybbas -- imprisoned in their world. The story cannot be true -- not really. But
then the whispers start. Violet and Demetrius, along with an ancient,
scarred dragon, may hold the key to the Nybbas's triumph . . . or its
demise. It all depends on how they tell the story. After all, stories
make their own rules.
Iron Hearted Violet is a story of a
princess unlike any other. It is a story of the last dragon in
existence, deathly afraid of its own reflection. Above all, it is a
story about the power of stories, our belief in them, and how one
enchanted tale changed the course of an entire kingdom.
Princess Violet is a difficult heroine for me to like. She is curious to the point of reckless and thinks a little too much of her own intelligence. That prideful attitude leads to her downfall, so why she is hard to like she is still sympathetic. She does grow during the story and reaches the place where she is truly a protagonist to care about. The lessons she learns, how they change her, and how she applies them make her a more nuanced character by the end.The narrator isn't my favorite either. The story is first person from the viewpoint of Lord Cassion, the court storyteller, so it reads like third person with an intrusive narrator. One that calls his readers "dears". We all know how much I love that. The presence of Violet's best friend, Demetrius, saved me from not caring about any of the characters for the first half of the book. I adored this courageous, patient, loyal, and determined boy who was willing to risk anything to save his best friend and kingdom.
The world building is layered and interesting. The world of the story is a multiverse created by the old gods. The portion our characters live in imprisons a malevolent god who tried to rule the multiverse by enslaving dragons. He wants out of his prison and will use his considerable skill with lies and manipulation to achieve this. This makes for an interesting story, but a bleak one most of the way through. There are interesting ideas explored through this, the nature of good and evil, how one's choices affect the world, and the idea that stories are important and have the power to shape and change the world. None of this is happy though and there is very little humor to break up the weight of heavy subject matter. In that way it is a hard read. But it's also a beautiful one.
In the hours before she disappeared, Violet read the story of the Nybbas, over and over and over again. She couldn't stop. She couldn't slow down. The story had weight and meaning and voice. It breathed in her ear and whispered against her skin. Its voice spun a tale around her heart an dulled it tight, and all the wile it told her things-awful things-and Violet believed them.
Kelly Barnhill knows how to weave words and weave them well.
I can't say I enjoyed reading this book, but I appreciated the experience.
Note for My Fellow Christian Parents: There are some themes and statements in this book that some will find theologically problematic. If your child wants to read this book I would recommend that you read and discuss it with them. There are some interesting questions raised and they are certainly ones that would lead to some great conversations.