Before he wrote The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman wrote a quartet of books based in Victorian London, the Sally Lockhart Mysteries. They feature another smart leading lady, the titular Sally Lockhart. However, the fourth book in the series, entitled The Tin Princess, actual stars another woman, Adelaide, who is incidentally one of my favorite heroines.
When we first met Adelaide, she was a small girl from the slums imprisoned by the evil Mrs. Holland in The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the Sally Lockhart books, and she disappears without a trace at the end of the story. Ten years later, she turns up as an ex-prostitute, rescued from that life by her new fiancé, who turns out to be the Crown Prince of Razkavia (a fictional country somewhat like a tiny Austria). When the Prince is murdered during his coronation, Adelaide abruptly finds herself in charge of a country in the midst of a revolution.
Adelaide is a wonderfully interesting character. Having spent the first two decades of her life on the streets, she eagerly seizes the chance at a better life, without thinking about the repercussions of marrying a prince. But when she abruptly become Crown Princess and then Queen, she is thrust into a world of political intrigue and diplomacy that she is unprepared to face. Watching her progression from petulant street urchin to the leader of a nation is one of the great points of the novel.
Once aware of her new responsibility, she sets out to fulfill her duty as best as she can. From lessons in elocution and Razkavian, to state dinners and treaty-signings, she throws herself determinedly into the role of Queen of a country she had never previously heard of. Her slow mastery of the rules of diplomacy and statecraft is incredibly interesting to read, as is the occasional glimpse of the street urchin spine of steel that holds her up through it all.
Furthermore, while Pullman is nothing if not an incredibly gifted writer, this book stands out as a particular example of his detailed crafting. Razkavia, though fictional, has a hugely rich culture and history as encountered by Adelaide, and her maid (and the narrator of the story, Becky, a Razkavian native). Also, the lessons in political maneuvering are both incredibly detailed and incredibly true to life. It’s like what the Princess Diaries wishes it was.
My favorite scene is the coronation, after the Crown Prince/King’s murder while he carried the great flag of Razkavia up to the highest point in the city to cement his kingship. The flag cannot touch the ground, and as the Prince/King falls with a bullet in the chest, Adelaide automatically steps forward to grab the heavy flag. She carries the standard (which weighs more than she does) all the way to its resting spot, though she reaches beyond her physical limits to accomplish it. The scene is a beautiful melding of national pride, cheering for Adelaide, and just one of those great triumphant scenes of character glory.
However, despite the aforementioned scene of awesomeness, what I have always appreciated about Pullman’s writing, in addition to his descriptive and creative skill, is his fidelity to realism, even in the midst of fiction. His books always end as you would expect things to happen in real life. And even if you don’t get the triumphant-ride-into-the-sunset-happy-ending, there is beauty in having things end believably, as if it somehow breaches the fiction/real life divide. The Tin Princess is no exception, and thus for its historical realism and bomb-diggety leading lady, it rates an AJ on the PSA!
While the three main books in the series – The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well – are fabulous themselves and well worth a read, The Tin Princess is by far my favorite. You should also check out the BBC movie versions of the first two books, starring Dr. Who alumna Billie Piper and the current Doctor, Matt Smith.