Book Review: Pennyroyal Academy

Pennyroyal Academy
By M.A. Larson

My Edition:
Paperback, 314 pages
2014, Scholastic
ISBN: 9780545888486

Young ladies and gentlemen all across the land are enlisting in Pennyroyal Academy to help fight the witches that are taking over the land and for the first time ever, those of non-royal blood are allowed to join the ranks of hopefuls waiting to become Knights and Princesses. They must all train under the strict regimen of the academy if they wish to graduate to the next class and help fight. A mysterious girl with no name enrolls and as she learns what it means to become a true Princess, she discovers more about herself and her past.

While I enjoyed the premise of this book and many of the ideas Larson had throughout, overall I have a lot of issues. I realize this is middle grade and as such, plots or themes tend to be more simplified – however, I also read a lot of middle grade fiction and rather than simplified, this book feels underdeveloped.

My biggest gripe is Pennyroyal Academy itself. Here’s a Hogwarts-esque (complete with dangerous, forbidden sections that are off-limits to students and will result in immediate expulsion unless of course you’re our heroine because then we make exceptions) institution that turns those of royal blood into Knights or Princesses.

  1. Why are young men trained to be Knights and not Princes?
  2. If you’re born the daughter of a king, are you not already a Princess?
    1. So are young men automatically Princes? Are they never Princes? Is there a different school for this?

Okay, I’m being snarky here – but I really did wonder why you weren’t already considered a prince (knight?) or princess based on lineage. Larson does add a little about “True Princesses” who battle to save the realm, etc. but I feel like that was a vague answer to this question.

There’s also the issue of what the Academy does. Traditionally they only allowed those of royal blood to enlist to battle the witches, but they’ve been losing so much ground that they’ve opened enrollment to those of the common blood as well. Awesome! So all who enter the academy are told that they are there to learn to be Courageous, Compassionate, Kind and Disciplined, so they can become True Knights and Princesses and thus be empowered enough to battle the witches. Also awesome!

Where it goes sour is the “training.” There seems to be a seemingly endless and frustratingly vague (or not even mentioned) list of reasons as to why students won’t “make the cut” and are thus expelled (or whatever) from the academy. Not only are readers not typically given clear reasons as to why students are expelled (making it hard to feel like our main character, Evie, might be in danger of expulsion for her actions), but this seems like a complete waste of able-bodied citizens. Even if the students don’t meet whatever wacky, made up standards the school staff holds them to during training, couldn’t they be used in another capacity to help fight the witches? We’re told several times throughout the story that different parts of the realm are falling to the witches’ power – don’t they want every person to help, in whatever way they can? Instead, those students who are expelled are just sent back home to whatever war-torn country they were from, to possibly be captured by witches or otherwise endangered. Perhaps mankind wouldn’t be losing the battle to the witches if they actual utilized all those who were willing to assist?

The other portion of my gripe with the training is what they’re actually training students to do. There are some courses here and there, like history, and dressmaking (I won’t go into my issues with this portion of the story), but the majority of the courses seemed to be physical, like wall climbing, pushing carriages up muddy hills, jumping out of towers onto horseback, some physical combat, and mild team-building exercises. While these classes likely foster discipline and maybe courage, I was left wondering where the kindness and compassion came into play. Students are encouraged to compete against each other and when dishonesty occurs, the staff doesn’t bother to stop it. Yet readers are told that some of a Princess’s greatest weapons are Kindness and Compassion (these give her magical heart magic somehow!) and I was left wondering why the academy did nothing to foster these aspects.

Perhaps I’m being too picky, but since the premise of the book is based of attendance at the academy shaping True Princesses, I was bothered by what felt like a lack of thought.

This turned into more of a rant than intended, so I’ll just touch lightly on my other concerns:

-There’s a boy princess, Basil: his mother has like twenty-something sons and really wanted Basil to be trained as a princess (read: be born a girl?), so he was assigned to their ranks, rather than those of the knights. This was an interesting concept, but rather than infuse any themes or morals, or even any interest in this topic, Basil was merely a boy who hung out with all the girls.

-Evie’s “family”: to avoid potential spoilers, I’ll just say that Evie wasn’t raised by humans. She stumbles out of the woods wearing “only spider webs” (I also wonder about that…) and readers are told her time at the academy is her first interaction with humans ever. Well, it sure didn’t feel like it. Aside from her strange sleeping habits, Evie has no issues adjusting to the human lifestyle and doesn’t seem to stick out at all due to her alternative parentage. I feel like her character, which fell flat for me, could have benefited from some struggles due to trying to adjust to “normal” life. Also…how did she learn how to read!? Or for that matter, use a toilet (or latrine or whatever they use) and wear clothing, and wouldn’t she be amazed or maybe freaked out by the different food choices she has? What about human speech, how did she learn that? I have a million questions about the way she was raised and how it could have possibly resulted in her being  a well adjusted human.

-Evie’s “powers”: she has two random moments in the book where she suddenly exhibits powers that those of her “family” have naturally. She briefly puzzles about why this is happening, as it happens, then gives is no further thought and readers aren’t given any clue as to whether she could potentially developed different magic, other than that of the True Heart of a True Princess. Again, her character really would have benefited from the complexity of displaying a different form of magic than her fellow students.

All this being said (whew, I sure said a lot!), I didn’t dislike this book. It was pretty fun to read and I enjoyed the idea, as well as the entire princess lore. Here we have a book where Cinderella, Snow White and other famous princesses are real – they’re prior students of the academy, all trained to fight the witches. Some princesses are still on the battlefront while our main character is in training. I liked that all these women existed in one universe. Plus, battle princesses! I also enjoyed the final twist to Evie’s backstory, which at least gave her past some interesting layers, even if I didn’t find her to be an engaging protagonist.

Also, the Scholastic edition’s cover art is on point!

There’s a sequel coming out in June of this year. I’m not sure if I’ll read it – perhaps if Scholastic comes out with a matching edition, then I’ll add it to my collection. Overall, I really wish more time had been spent in developing Larson’s great ideas. But this is an easy read and probably fairly enjoyable for young fantasy fans.

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