What happens after the “happily ever after”? That is the primary question around which Christopher Healy’s delightful YA fantasy novel, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, revolves. Healy may not be the first author to fracture beloved fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty, nor to cast fairy tale tropes under a satirical eye, but he does it with such freshness, ingenuity, and wit, that it doesn’t matter. His novel is smart and funny enough to attain insta-classic status, alongside other famous entries in the genre, such as The Princess Bride and Shrek, although without any of the hipper-than-thou, and sometimes cynical or vulgar contemporary references that ironically date the latter. Saving Your Kingdom is definitely a fairy tale told from a modern perspective, in a overwhelmingly, comedically fantastical setting, but its humor derives not from literal anachronism but from the juxtaposition of fairy tale tropes with 21st century logic.
Fairy tales–especially for today’s more overall sophisticated audience–require suspension of disbelief. Firstly, there are questions surrounding the nature of the magic itself. How, for example, could true love’s kiss awaken Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, when neither of them, in the original story, had ever met their princes before they kissed them? But on another level there is simply how the characters themselves behave throughout. When Rapunzel’s prince returned for her a second time to escape, why didn’t he bring a ladder, rather than simply climbing her hair again, leaving her with no way to get down? Why did Cinderella’s prince really think the most effective way to find her would be to try to figure out whose foot fit the missing slipper? These questions aren’t asked in the original fairy tales, because they deal in symbolism and metaphor. Healy’s novel, however, mines humor out of actually confronting the characters with these very questions in a way that lightly pokes fun at the original tales while never stripping them of their lasting power and enchantment.
Saving Your Kingdom re-envisions the four princes most often dubbed with the moniker of “Prince Charming” as four distinct personalities, not all of whom are as suited to the role of hero as one might expect, and all of whom are irritated by constantly being confused for one another, thanks to the bards’ lack of specificity in naming them. Healy cleverly uses each prince’s original story to help mold his interpretation of each character. Firstly, we have Prince Frederic, Cinderella’s prince, who has spent his entire life being shielded from all dangers by his overly protective father and who has therefore grown into a very effete, mannered, sheltered prince who knows everything about etiquette and fashion and balls and absolutely nothing about going off and slaying dragons. And so while Cinderella was initially swept off her feet by him, the novelty of living in a castle as fiancee to a prince has rapidly worn off. After having spent her entire childhood and teenage years cooped up in a house, she longs for adventure, not a life wherein her prince’s concept of shaking things up is eating lunch outside.
Secondly, there is Prince Gustav, a huge, brutish prince who has spent his life trying to live up to his even huger, even more brutish brothers, but who never manages to succeed at the task in his huge, brutish parents’ eyes. Imagine, then, the humiliation he experiences when not only is he not able to rescue the girl in the tower but eventually has to be rescued by her when Rapunzel’s tears cure his blindness, after her witch tossed him out a window and into a briar patch. Their courtship, therefore, doesn’t go as the stories had indicated, either. There’s also Prince Liam, a genuinely handsome, dashing, adventuresome prince who awakens Sleeping Beauty, only to find a very different princess than the one he’d bargained for, and Prince Duncan, a genuinely odd duck whose princess, Snow White, adores him despite his eccentricities–including a propensity for making friends with animals and giving them funny names–but needs some space from his intense attention, too.
Suffice it to say that, in all situations, the Prince Charming gig didn’t turn out as expected, largely due to how relatively little each prince had to do to actually gain his “happy ending.” Due to a twist of fate and circumstance, these hapless not-quite-heroes end up on a quest together to free the bards of the land from the clutches of an evil witch, whose plan is to kill these storytellers so that they stop spreading songs and words about the great deeds of heroes and slandering her in the process. And while one can predict the basic trajectory of the plot–that it will be about how these princes learn to get over their differences and become friends, heroes (even the most cowardly among them), and a united, fighting force–Healy does it with an inordinate amount of invention, hilarity, and gusto, making it a truly thrilling and often hysterically funny read, one of my favorite inventions of his being a most unusual Bandit King.
And lest one worry that refocusing these female-driven tales onto the male characters might undermine the women’s importance in their own stories, Healy includes numerous and prominent female characters who are awesome, fearless, and kickass in their own right, and often more so than the princes. And one of them just happens to be the quintessential fairy tale protagonist, Cinderella, whose desire to be a hero–to not be content with a simple “happily ever after”–kicks off the entire plot in the first place, thus ensuring that the end to every famous fairy tale is actually just the beginning to a brand new one.