Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede, was an eye-opening book for me. It centers around Cimorene, a princess in the small kingdom of Linderwall, where the only education princesses receive is more about how loudly to scream when being carried off by a giant, rather than anything helpful like arithmetic. Determined to avoid being married to some boring prince, Cimorene runs away and eventually volunteers to be a “captive” princess for the dragon Kazul.
Tall, dark-haired Cimorene doesn’t fit in to the typical mold of a beautiful princess, but then she’d rather be studying Latin or swordplay anyway. When she runs off to avoid her scripted fate, she ends up as Kazul’s princess and finds she quite likes the post – as many books as she likes, and all she has to do in return is make cherries jubilee and do some cleaning. Things get complicated when a stream of well-meaning knights come in an attempt to “rescue” her from Kazul, and when malevolent wizards start poking around the Caves of Fire and Night, Cimorene’s life might finally have become interesting!
Dealing With Dragons was the first book I’d read that openly mocks fairytale tropes: first off there are the “princess lessons” on how to be properly rescued dragons/giants/etc. But there is also Morwen the witch, who has nine cats (none of whom are black) and grows normal apples in her garden instead of poisonous herbs (though she may have a few of those too). The cherry on top might be the discovery of how to melt the evil wizards – soapy water with a little lemon juice. Wizard of Oz, anyone? Wrede imagines a world where fairytale storylines are the norm, but not the only option, and her heroes are those who would rather make their own way than follow the normal path.
Furthermore, Cimorene was the first heroine I’d met who was smart and sarcastic and more interested in doing what she wanted than finding her Prince Charming. She’s resourceful and not afraid of hard work. Plus when the time it takes her to convince her would-be rescuers that she doesn’t actually want to be rescued keeps her from getting anything done, instead of trying to explain, she hikes down the mountain a bit and just puts up a sign that says “road washed out.” Genius! This is a book that encourages you to look for a simple solution rather than some fancy magic trick, and proves that doing what you love is the only way to get a real “happily ever after.”
Wrede is a wry and funny author, and she crams plenty of action into the book, though it is definitely meant for a younger to middle-grade reader. There are also three more books in the Enchanted Forest Series: Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons. They are all great fun, and I highly recommend them!