I had seen the Tales of Goldstone Wood series, by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, online before, but hadn’t been much interested. Then an author friend recommended the series, so I decided to pick them up. So far, I have read the first book, Heartless, and I am glad I did so, because it is really good.
As the story begins, a young prince and princess, as little children, are playing near what is believed to be an enchanted woods when they come across a dirty cat who is missing both of his eyes. The boy, Felix, doesn’t think much of the very ill-looking animal, but his much more empathetic sister, Una, takes pity and carries it home with her.
The book then cuts forward by several years, and a now teenage Una and Felix are preparing for school lessons with their tutor, when their cat Monster shows up (yes, he is the same cat as earlier mentioned). There is something special about the animal that the reader learns of about a third of the way through the novel.
Anyways, while they are in their lessons, out of the woods, for the first time in many decades, come many fantastical creatures. Various faerie creatures, the stuff of old wives tales and legends, come tromping out for a special fair where people can buy their wares, and see and visit with these strange, scary, and delightful people. Of course, the children, lead by their father King Fidel, comes out to visit the fair, and that is where things get interesting. This is especially true when the second purpose for the people of the kingdom of Farthestshore, which is the what the kingdom of the fae is called, to visit Fidel’s kingdom is revealed: Prince Aethelbald of Farthestshore wants to ask for Una’s hand in marriage.
Una rejects his proposal, as she finds him to be singularly unromantic, boring, and not at all the ideal prince of her dreams. Plus his name is boring and rhymes with “applebald”, and who can take that? Certainly Una deserves better. She finds she can’t stand this uptight, stuffy, unromantic, unwanted suitor. For those who wonder, yes, this is very much her attitude.
Upset at being jilted, but still intending to woo her over, and concerned about her welfare, the prince of Farthestshore leaves on an errand, but intends to return as soon as possible. It should be noted that he is not trying to stalk her or refuse her answer of “no” in a bad way. He simply knows some of the evil that is about to happen to her kingdom, and is determined to prevent it. He tries to warn King Fidel before he leaves, but Fidel ignores his warnings, much to his later regret.
While Aethelbald is gone, tragedy strikes and the kingdom is attacked by a dragon and an enemy army. And the dragon has a dark secret in store for Una, one that will transform her life into a nightmare. The royal family is spread to the winds, and their only hope lies in a man whom Una has treated despicably.
For those who think I shared too many spoilers so far, I am sorry. I felt that just saying that a dragon attacked and the jilted suitor had to save them all wasn’t a good enough description. Unless the background is understood, the main plot, which I have left many details unexplained about, can not be properly grasped.
This book was oh so beautifully written. Stengl’s use of language was riveting and absolutely poetic. It wasn’t overly done, though. There was no “purple prose” here, just language that fit each situation wonderfully, yet had a lovely sort of “ring” to it. This was good, as it made the second half of the novel, where the main characters undergo a lot of suffering, more bearable. The almost whimsical tone of the words was a reminder that, despite the bad stuff happening at that moment, this isn’t a super dark story, and that good will win in the end.
Though very little in the way of the religion of this fictional world comes into play in this book (what happens in later books I don’t know yet), there are some obvious (at least to me, they are) parallels to Christian theology. I can easily see Aethelbald as having many traits of a Messianic archetype. Even when rejected and treated horribly, he still sacrifices all for others, including in a physical/metaphysical sense I still don’t understand, his heart. He loves Una as he is commanded by his father to do so. Una has to suffer some things as Aethelbald saves her from her crisis and her dark secret. The thing is that I could be entirely wrong, but even if I’m right, the ideas are subtle enough that one will not notice them if one doesn’t think about it. In other words, this isn’t “in your face” preaching, but subtle moral points.
The above gets into why I don’t have much to criticize about this book. When I read it, for most of the book, before I saw the various thematic elements of the story, I really disliked Una and wanted nothing to do with the parts of the story where she was the point of view character. She had empathy for those weaker than herself and she believed in others, but that is about all I can say good about her. For the most part, as noted in my description of her thoughts in an earlier paragraph, she was an absolutely spoiled, arrogant brat. Not mean, but still as spoiled and arrogant as a person can be and still be called at all “nice”.
I honestly wondered what in the world Aethelbald could see in her to love, until the story progressed and the various revelations of the backstory and of the prince of Farthestshore’s feelings and character came to light. When they did so, I saw that the way she was written was on purpose to make this point about how only the sacrifice of Another can take away our hurts. We don’t deserve Christ’s sacrifice, as we are unlovely, but He gave all and rose for us to save us nonetheless.
The one single part I didn’t like was how abrupt the ending was. While I thought that the ending of some books, like Jill Williamson’s From Darkness Won, for instance, are arguably too long and drawn out, this one was too fast and didn’t give the reader enough of a “payoff” in terms seeing the characters getting to be happy post-victory.
This book was so, so, soooooo beautifully-written, convicting, and a great page-turner. I can’t recommend it enough.