Vivian French's Tales of the Five Kingdoms series isn't new, but it is currently ongoing and new to me (and perhaps you). French is a British author and so these books are published first in the U.K. by Walker Books and then reprinted stateside by Candlewick Press. So far two are out in the U.S. and three are available in the U.K. There are plans for at least five books in the series at this point, so there are more to come that will be brand new to all of us. The series is for middle readers but can be enjoyed by older kids and grown-ups, too.
These are the types of books that also helped inspire this blog. I find books like these and they never fit very well into the book galleries on SurLaLune proper. The first book in the series uses the Frog Prince (princes turned into frogs) and Cinderella (wicked stepsister), for example. These mish mashed elements make the books fun to read as one searches for the fairy tale influences while enjoying the original story. They deserve some publicity.
So on to the books...
The Robe of Skulls: The First Tale from the Five Kingdoms is the first book in the series. (The hardcover is also currently bargained priced on Amazon.com, making it cheaper than the paperback, but that can change within hours, days or weeks according to inventory. And here's the Amazon.co.uk link, too.)
Review from Booklist: Prolific British author French (Once Upon a Time, 1996) serves up a charmingly witty adventure peopled with all manner of fairy-tale archetypes: a bad prince who is really not the least bit evil, a beautiful but nasty stepsister, a beleaguered but brave little girl named Gracie, and a talking bat. Lady Lamorna, an aging, evil sorceress, sets off to buy herself a grotesque gown, while at the same time Marlon the bat rescues Gracie from her cellar prison and leads her into the wilderness and the eventual safety of a group of old crones. Meanwhile, Prince Marcus has been left at home for bad behavior and is thus happily passed over by Lady Lamorna’s wicked and calculating spell that turns his twin and the other princes and princesses into frogs. French is a deft storyteller who keeps all the plotlines crisscrossing as beautifully as the web the crones must keep straight and true. Devotees of fractured fairy tales will be as pleased as Gracie with the results.
And another positive one:
Review from Kirkus: Conceiving a burning desire for a new gown - black velvet, decorated with poison ivy, spider webs and skulls - wicked Lady Lamorna decides to pay for it by turning all the local princes into frogs and extracting ransoms from their royal parents. She gets help on the way from the considerably more clever Foyce Undershaft, a young lady of stunning beauty and "a heart as hard as a frying pan," who is also the evil stepsister of kindly Gracie Gillypot. Enter Marlon, a bat who addresses young folk as "kiddo" and is forever flitting off with a "Ciao!" to deliver messages or orchestrate some dodgy deal. Thanks to his efforts Gracie hooks up with Marcus, a scruffy prince missed in the general amphibious transformation, to rescue the other princes and to trick Foyce into entering a magical sort of rehabilitation program. Lady Lamorna even gets her gown, in the end. Larded with stock comical characters and illustrated with Collins's gangly, Beardsley-esque line drawings, the story will slip down like the bonbon it is.
The second book is The Bag of Bones: The Second Tale from the Five Kingdoms (Amazon.co.uk link).
Publisher's description: When the quill writes GO GO GO frantically on the wall, and the House of the Ancient Crones heaves Gracie Gillypot outside onto the path, it can mean only one thing: there’s Trouble in the Five Kingdoms. This time it’s in the form of a beady-eyed, green-tongued witch named Truda Hangnail, who with her banished Deep Magic has vowed to succeed Queen Bluebell on the throne. Now that her horrible spell has shrunk the good witches of Wadington to the size of, well, rats, can anything stop her? Will the strengths, smarts, and charms of a spunky trueheart, a sweet-natured orphan, a scruffy prince, a substantial troll, and two squabbling bats be enough to foil her insidious plot?
And finally, just released in the U.K. and not yet available in the U.S. (except as an import), we have The Heart of Glass: The Third Tale from the Five Kingdoms.
Publisher's description: It is a fine day for dwarf watching -– at least that is what Gracie Gillypott and Prince Marcus think when they set out, quite unaware that Princess Marigold of Dreghorn has set her sights on Marcus, and decided to "follow him to the ends of the earth" -- fan, frilly petticoats and all. All is not well; the dwarves are overworked and underpaid, having been expected to produce extra gold for wedding crowns for the wedding of Fedora and Prince Tertius; to deal with the problem, the Chief of Works sends for a couple of trolls who have an agenda of their own -– to find a princess for their leader, who believes True Love will melt his heart of glass. Gracie is mistaken for a princess, Marigold gets in everyone's way, Gubble is forced to make a terrible choice ... but fortunately Marlon and Alf are there to save the day.
The reader reviews are just as strong as the professional reviews, praising the writing by French and the illustrations by Ross Collins that have definite Aubrey Beardlsey and Edward Gorey influences. I would have devoured these as a kid and still enjoyed the first book (the only one I have so far) almost as much as an adult.