“In a world in which elegance, beauty, and singing ability are revered, Aza is bulky, awkward, and homely. Her saving grace is that she can sing and has a gift of voice manipulation that she calls ‘illusing.’ …The plot is fast-paced, and Aza’s growth and maturity are well crafted and believable. Readers will enjoy the fairy-tale setting while identifying with the real-life problems of living in an appearance-obsessed society. A distinguished addition to any collection” (Buron, 2006).
This was my first experience listening to the audio-book version of a book, and I have to say that (even though I really enjoyed the book itself) I had a hard time really enjoying it. Not only is it incredibly difficult to concentrate on an audio-book, but it’s incredibly difficult to pin-point and cite specific quotes. That being said, I absolutely loved this book! I’m a long-time fan of retold fairy tales (one of my favorite series is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer), so this was right up my alley. I loved the message that it was trying to send, and the unique way it twisted the well-known fairy tale of Snow White.
The story focuses on young Aza, an inn-keeper’s daughter who hides her face because of what she considers to be her extreme ugliness. In Ayortha, the kingdom in which her family lives, singing is viewed as being the most important skill someone can possess. Fortunately for Aza, this is something she excels in. In fact, Aza is so talented that she even has the ability to project her voice from other places, imitating the voices of others as she does so. She calls this power “illusing,” and it is a power that brings her both a lot of attention and a lot of trouble. When she gets the unique opportunity to attend the wedding of Ayortha’s king, Aza finds herself wrapped up in a massive adventure involving romance, deceit, a magic mirror, and more than a few gnomes.
The best part of this book, in my opinion, is the message that there are some things that are far more important than one’s outer appearance. As someone who has always struggled with self-image and self-worth, this book was an anthem for me and ordinary girls everywhere. As the review from School Library Journal (shown above) states, we live in an extremely appearance-driven society. For women and young girls, especially, the pressure to be constantly perfect and beautiful is a monumental one, driving many to develop eating disorders and body image issues.
While I am fortunate enough to love my body now, there was a time when I felt a lot like Aza does at the beginning of the novel. This book is important because it speaks to those girls who might not feel themselves to be “the fairest,” and to those who might feel too heavy or too blotchy or not attractive enough. Throughout the story, Aza learns to love herself exactly the way she is, and to embrace her gift of singing as the thing that makes her unique and special. To me, that is a beautiful lesson to come from a book meant for children, and I definitely think that it’s one a younger (or even older) teen might appreciate. My favorite quote from the entire book can be found near the end, when Aza realizes that the prince sees her as beautiful:
“I had grandeur. I breathed in the cool night air. Perhaps I could learn to wear myself without apologies, with dignity. Perhaps I could become what Ijori already saw. Perhaps someday, I might even be able to smile at myself in a mirror. Not yet, but maybe someday” (Chapter 37, 2:25, Levine).
While Aza, arguably, should not have needed a prince’s affection to tell her this, I think it’s important that her character arc involved learning to love and accept herself for who she was. Many young girls need this affirmation, and to know that there are people out there who will look past their outward appearance to see what they have on the inside. After all, it is what’s on the inside that counts the most; Aza does not win everyone over because of her looks, but because of her beautiful voice and kind, caring nature. This may not be the most complicated or deep message, but it is an important message nevertheless.
That being said, I do think this book is best suited for younger girls. While the message is important for young boys to hear as well, I don’t think this title would necessarily appeal to them. Fairest is a small part of a developing genre known as the “re-told fairy tale” genre, and this genre is not usually marketed to teenage boys. The covers usually always feature a beautiful girl, or a traditionally feminine object like flowers or a mirror. While there are certainly many titles a teenage boy might enjoy in this genre, the covers and descriptions might deter many of them from reading a “girly” book. Regardless, I would gladly recommend this book (whether in a classroom or a library) to a young girl who either loves this genre, loves the other work by Gail Carson Levine, or who simply feels down on herself and needs an inspirational tale.
As far as re-told fairy tales go, this one does resemble Snow White, but might not be the best choice for someone who wants something closer to the classic fairy tale. A reader looking for an instant connection to the story of Snow White might be disappointed, as it takes over half the book for this tale to begin to look anything like the fairy tale from which it is borrowing. I, personally, find this to be a good thing, as I like seeing a fresh take on an old story, but those who prefer a more classic version of the fairy tale would be better off trying a book like Winter by Marissa Meyer. Fans of Ella Enchanted (also by Gail Carson Levine) will be pleased, however, as the story takes place in the same universe and features many nods to the other work. Overall, I was enchanted by this story, and think there’s a lot of worthy material to be found in this simple little book about a girl named Aza.
Buron, M. C. (2006). Fairest. School Library Journal, 52(9), 209-210.
Levine, G. C., (2015). Fairest [Audio Book, Read by S. Nankin]. Charlotte Hall, MD: Recorded Books.