Book Review: The Ugly Princess: The Legend of the Winnowwood, Henderson Smith (2014)

June 25th, 2014 12:56 pm by Kelly Garbato

ALL the scars! (Instead of stars! See what I did there?)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Read program. Also, this review contains clearly marked spoilers towards the end.)

I wondered if in the history of the world there had ever been a Princess as ugly as me? I doubted it. But was there ever a Princess in the history of the world who saved their kingdom twice from annihilation by the time they were eighteen, and I doubted that as well. I gave myself a brave smile then attached the veil to my crown and appraised myself – well, it was a beautiful dress.

So there’s this princess named Olive, see.

But she’s also a magical creature called a Winnowwood – the last of her kind.

In addition to being troll-like in appearance, Winnowwoods can control nature, speak to animals, assume animal form, even heal their fellow earthlings. But every time a Winnowwood uses her magic to change something outside of herself – such as to heal her nonhuman friends – she becomes uglier on the outside: she sprouts a new boil or wart, for example. But to the animals she just grows more and more beautiful.

Hundreds of years ago, the lands were teeming with Winnowwoods. But a witch called Cassandra the Dragon Slayer cursed them with a knife, the Blade of Winnowwood, which tempts the Winnowwoods with physical beauty: should they use it to sever their crux (an extra joint on their pinky which is the source of their powers), they will lose their magics in exchange for youth and beauty. This is why all the Winnowwood save for Olive are gone – having long since died or succumbed to the curse. The beauty a Winnowwood will attain after “winnowing” is inversely related to how ugly she is at the time of the ceremony.

Beauty is all Olive’s younger sister Roseline ever wanted. As a child, she rarely used her magic, for fear of becoming uglier than she already was. But the day of her winnowing ceremony, she made a rare visit to the glen, where she spent hours torturing a doe – slashing her chest, breaking a leg with a hammer, etc. – so that she could heal the deer over and again, becoming uglier and uglier with each act of magic. And, ultimately, more and more beautiful that night. (Spoiler alert: Olive found the doe her sister left for dead and healed her – or her physical scars, anyway.)

The whole time I’m reading this, I’m thinking: yeah, but what about dinner time? You don’t eat your friends: cows, pigs, chickens. Awkward.

Turns out that Olive and her mom Opal are both vegetarians! (Roseline was, but not since her winnowing.) It’s not vegan, but I’ll take it.

Up until this point, I’d slowly been falling in love with The Ugly Princess: The Legend of the Winnowwood. But page 57? That’s when I gave my heart over to it fully. This is one beautiful story, people. Inside and out.

No, really. Even the book is physically beautiful, with a lush matte cover; thick, luxurious pages; and a whimsical fairy tale font.

Olive is her people’s last hope; the last Winnowwood who not only retains her powers, but who can give birth to the next generation of Winnowwood women. But our young heroine isn’t just cursed with the Blade of Winnowwood – she’s saddled with a rather monstrous family as well. Just as Olive is as kind and compassionate as she is physically ugly, her father and sister are as superficial and cruel as they are attractive; you’ve already heard how Roseline tortured an unsuspecting – nay, trusting and defenseless, for nonhumans are bonded to the Winnowwood through magic! – animal in the name of beauty. (And I don’t think it’s incidental that Roseline abused a doe, and not a buck; rather, it’s emblematic of women hurting other women to gain the approval of men.)

Though Olive saves her father’s Kingdom from Druzazzi invaders (think: punk rock Vikings) not once, but twice, she’s met with anger instead of gratitude: how dare she show her ugly face in public, thus bringing shame upon her family? A man enamored of physical beauty, King Michael feels nothing but disgust for Olive, who has chosen – continues to choose, with each moment of her being – the very real power wielded by the Winnowwoods over the temporary, fleeting power of physical beauty. A power that, ultimately, is contingent upon the social mores of others. A power that’s painfully limited in its scope. Unfortunately for Olive, beauty is also the only power that’s worshiped in women, as her mother so unhelpfully points out.

Time and again, King Michael threatens to cut off Olive’s crux, with or without her consent. Though Opal initially has her daughter’s back, when Michael’s war plans backfire and he is (deservedly) kidnapped by Ivan, King of Alganoun, Opal all buts demands that Olive winnow so that she can marry Ivan’s son, thus cementing a treaty between the two nations. Of course, Roseline could “do her duty” (ugh, how I hate that phrase! As though it’s ever okay to expect someone to give up their bodily autonomy by acquiescing to an unwanted marriage! See, e.g., Take Back the Skies.) – but she’s madly in love with Prince Victore, and wouldn’t it be a shame for her to give up her true love? Nevermind that Olive has so much more to lose – after all, the fate of the Winnowwood rests on her young shoulders.

Though the pressure to winnow is unrelenting at times, Olive resists. Her powers are priceless, and she wouldn’t trade them – and her animals friends – for anything. Instead, Olive hatches a plan to rescue her father from King Ivan’s towers. As heroic plots so often do, Olive’s escape plan goes sideways as she’s sucked into a treacherous and convoluted conspiracy involving Prince Victore, King Ivan, the highway bandit known as Black Bart, and the wave of Druzazzi invaders who are fast approaching the coast line. Will Olive emerge triumphant, with both her life and her powers intact?

In The Ugly Princess, Henderson Smith has created a new kind of fairy tale that’s refreshingly feminist. While Olive is indeed conflicted about her choice not to winnow – often fearing that she’ll never find a man to “mate” with her – she holds strong to her convictions. Even single, she is never alone: surrounded as she is by a multitude of animals who love her, respect her, would gladly die for her. Friends – family – who know full well the extent of Olive’s beauty. Olive is a lovely person, an exciting heroine for young girls to identify with and root for.

Opal – who seems to regret her decision to winnow – is a more difficult character to grasp. Though she’s initially supportive – even proud – of Olive’s choice to retain her powers, she quickly flip-flops when her monster of a husband is in peril. In fact, it’s difficult to see why Opal’s even with Michael to begin with; his only redeeming quality is his handsomeness, which is only skin-deep. King Michael is an overbearing, abusive, superficial man, and a horrible father to his daughters. (Though he comes to favor Roseline after she winnows, he was equally ashamed of both girls when they were children.)

* spoiler alert! *

The witch’s curse contains a rather interesting loophole: if a man should fall in love with a Winnowwood, warts and all, then she shall be allowed to shed her ugly outer shell and enjoy physical beauty while retaining her powers. It’s easy to see why Cassandra would include this clause: believing that no men would ever fall in love with such hideously ugly women, she decided it would be even crueler to give the Winnowwoods this false source of hope.

Only, in a rather expected twist, Olive manages it, and manages it well: Black Bart, who kidnaps her en route to King Ivan’s and then later joins her in defeating the Druzazzi invaders, recognizes Olive’s inner beauty and falls in love with her, thus fulfilling the curse. (Or is it more of a prophecy at this point?)

To be honest, I wasn’t terribly thrilled at Olive’s eleventh hour transformation; but to be fair, neither is Olive. Used to being the object of scorn and derision, she doesn’t know how to handle the fumbling, bumbling men who now fall at her feet. She was more comfortable being mocked than worshiped; and besides, she’d rather be praised for her talents and accomplishments – which, hello, include striking down a Druzazzi battleship with a bolt of lightning! – than her physical looks.

The epilogue handily sets up a sequel, and I look forward to seeing how Olive deals with this new development. I can think of many educational, instructive plot lines which involve dealing with unwanted male attention.

And hey, it could have been worse: at least her powers, temporarily lost due to her sister’s beast of a fiance, are restored to her.

* end spoiler alert! *

Also problematic is the Winnowwod’s traditional method of “mating” with human men, which sounds a lot like rape: ambushing and drugging them with a potion that fools them into thinking that their sex partners are actually attractive. I’m not really sure how the author could have gotten around this; by having the women pay for sex, perhaps? A little raunchy for a kid’s book, but still preferable to the alternative.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that, for a self-published book, The Ugly Princess is both well-written and edited. I only spotted a few minor mistakes, mostly of the punctuation variety. CreateSpace books make me nervous (I’ve run into some real duds!), but this one can hold its own with the big publishing houses any day.

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 on Amazon.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not much. Olive is incredibly ugly, and becomes more so each time she uses her magic to heal another creature. Beauty and power are key elements of the story.

Animal-friendly elements: OMG YES! Olive can communicate with animals; and because she considers them her friends, she doesn’t eat them. Mom Opal is a vegetarian too. Without hesitation, Olive uses her magic to heal her nonhuman kin, even though she becomes physically uglier with each act of kindness. See my review for more.


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