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on September 28, 2006
Aza ins't just plain; she's plain ugly. In a land where song, grace, and beauty are prized, Aza's large stature, not just in height but also breadth, are deemed appalling and overshadow her amazing abilities in singing. Abandoned at the Featherbed Inn as a newborn, she is lovingly raised by her foster family. But their love can't overcome the low self-esteem Aza develops because of how other people treat her. When an unexpected chance to travel to court for a royal wedding comes, Aza is hesitant but goes to help her family. There, she is "befriended" by the new queen, Ivi, who is selfish and self-absorbed. Soon after the wedding, the king is severely injured and Ivi is claimed ruler in his place. Forcing Aza to use her unusual ability to project her voice for her own gains, the queen quickly becomes a dictator that threatens Aza's honor, her tenuous relationship with Prince Ijori (the king's nephew and heir), and the country in general. Can Aza overcome her own lack of self-assurance to save herself and her land?

Very loosely based on Snow White, _Fairest_ is filled with all of the insightful and humorous writing that made _Ella Enchanted_ so delightful and is sure to quickly become a hit with readers of all ages.

Also recommended: Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Ella Enchanted, the Septemus Heap series, books by Shannon Hale
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on September 19, 2006
Aza is so ugly that she was abandoned as a baby. Fortunately, the innkeepers who found her on their doorstep took her in as their daughter. Teasing and stares aside, she has grown into a beloved member of her family.

Aza's life changes when a special talent catches the new queen's eye. Asked to be the queen's lady-in-waiting, Aza is thrilled--until she learns the price she must pay. Trapped in a deal she dare not break, Aza will face love and danger, and a chance to gain the beauty she always wished she had. In order to find her way, Aza will risk everything she has, and more.

Levine has created a fresh interpretation to the Snow White story. Set in the world of ELLA ENCHANTED, FAIREST introduces us to a young heroine who is forced to rely on her talents and wit where other girls would use their pretty faces. Aza is strong, yet fallible, as she embarks on an adventure beyond anything she ever imagined. Her character is wonderfully realized within Levine's vivid world.

FAIREST provides girls and young women a strong message of self-worth. As they say, beauty is skin (or voice) deep. It is a person's character that counts, and girls are perfectly capable of handling their own problems--or accepting help when they need it. Aza does both in this story. She learns to stand up for herself and what's right, but she also finds out when it's wise to let others help.

As great as this novel is, the ending is wrapped up a little too neat. The villain of the story doesn't seem to get the sort of punishment that they seem to deserve, although this is an issue discussed at one point. Some other loose ends are left dangling at the end of the book, but perhaps this is a lead-in to more modern fairy tales.

I highly recommend this book for girls aged eight and up. In a world where "thin is in" and looks count, this is a super way to reinforce the importance of valuing the individual. Everyone has something special to offer, as long as we're willing to get to know them.

Reviewed by Christina Wantz Fixemer

9/17/2006
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon August 27, 2009
Just as Gail Carson Levine's award-winning Ella Enchanted tackled the story of Cinderella, giving the story depth and meaning whilst simultaneously treating the reader to one of the best heroines and most realistic romances in all of Young Adult literature, "Fairest" purports to retell the fairytale of Snow White with a few twists.

Aza was abandoned as an infant at the Featherbed Inn and adopted by the innkeeper and his wife. Though loved by her family, Aza is ashamed of her weight and perceived ugliness, particularly since the kingdom of Ayortha is one that prizes beauty and song above all other virtues. Shunned by many of the guests, Aza enjoys solitude and occasionally the company of the gnomes that sometimes stay at the inn, including one that prophesies that in the future they'll meet again underground at a time when Aza will be in grave danger.

A change in the routine of life comes when a noblewoman in need of a lady's maid convinces Aza to attend the marriage of King Oscaro and his young commoner wife Ivi. Through a sequence of events, Aza finds herself in way over her head when she's made lady-in-waiting to the new Queen Ivi, who wants to exploit her talent of throwing her voice (what Aza calls "illusing") in order to make it appear as though she herself is a gifted singer.

What follows is a fairly loose retelling of "Snow White", with several good ideas on adapting fairytale to fit Aza's personal story, including a more sympathetic wicked queen, a unique interpretation of the magic mirror, gnomes in place of the seven dwarfs, and even a funny twist on the poisoned apple (it turns out Aza doesn't like apples all that much). Aza's task lies in clearing her name, securing the safety of the kingdom, and being reunited with her love Prince Ijori.

The book is clearly meant to provide commentary on our appearance-obsessed society, but unfortunately it's not handled particularly well. It spends more time on how Aza simply wants to be pretty, rather than the pain of the hurtful comments that are directed at her and the psychological effect such things have on a young mind. There's a difference between being self-conscious about one's looks and excessive *worrying* about one's looks (generally described as "vanity.") Aza falls into the latter category, as she's constantly looking into mirrors to check her reflection, worrying about her clothing, and has formed the habit of putting her hand over her face so that people can't see her. Wouldn't this just attract more attention to herself? (The moral is also somewhat undermined when she is spared by the "huntsman" ordered to kill her because he finds her so beautiful (thanks to a magic potion she took earlier). So...beauty really *is* important. Without it, she'd be dead).

The importance placed on beauty in Ayortha also creates problems further on in the story. We're supposed to be concerned when Ivi is takes over the palace and begins to meddle with the way things are run, but we're never really given a reason to care about the wellbeing of Ayortha. Apparently it's full of people who ostracize Aza just because she doesn't fit into the social norms, as according to her: "As bad as the ones who stared were the ones who looked away in embarrassment. Some guests didn't want me to serve their food, and some didn't want me to clean their rooms." If this is the way Aythorians treat "ugly" children, then their kingdom can get invaded by Huns and burnt to the ground for all I care.

Perhaps it's unfair to hold up "Fairest" again "Ella Enchanted," but really, the comparison is inevitable when one considers the differences between the two heroines. Ella burst off the page with liveliness, good humor and zest for adventure, whereas Aza is significantly more sedate and less confident. Nothing wrong with that of course, but Aza turns out to be one of those girls that will just Not. Stop. Crying. She cries when she's happy. She cries when she's sad. She cries when she's embarrassed, or frightened, or nervous. At a crucial point of the story, when she should be (and when her counterpart Ella certainly *would* be) looking around for weapons or an escape, she simply sits and cries some more. I'm afraid I got fed up with her well before her happily ever after rolls around (did she cry for that too?)

There is plenty of fun to be had considering that "Fairest" is set in the same universe as "Ella", and as such there are several references to the earlier book. Aza is the little sister of Areida, who was Ella's best friend at finishing school, and there are mentions of Ella, her father Sir Peter, and Lucinda the fairy (who is behind most of the trouble in this book too!) But unlike the previous book, which shed light on several fantasy idioms and poked gentle fun at the clichés of a fairytale realm, there are several awkward or unwieldy plot devices here that come across as unintentionally funny.

For instance, Ayorthia is a singing kingdom, which means that its people "sing" their declarations of love to each other, get together for communal sing-a-longs, and even (as in Aza's case) sing when they're in mortal peril. Sure, it's all in keeping with their culture, but on trying to picture it in your mind, it just seems silly. In another example, King Oscaro is hit on the head with an iron ring and for some reason looses the ability to speak (I'm guessing he's concussed, but wouldn't it have just been easier to say he'd had a stroke?) and later Aza bites into the infamous apple, chokes on her mouthful and...goes into a coma? Say what? The book is full of awkward, strange plot contrivances like these (such as Aza trying to squeeze through a window instead of looking for a door, Aza "grinning" at a man who's just tried to kill her, and a kiss/declaration of love that is abruptly cut short by the couple simply walking away from each other for no apparent reason) that grate on the imagination and make it difficult to really "believe" in what's going on.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Like all of Levine's books, "Fairest" is told in a bright, breezy, imminently readable tone and is certainly entertaining while it lasts. Despite her cry-baby tendencies, Aza's first-person account of her life is sincere and sympathetic, and the world that Levine has created for her characters is just as colourful and charming as it was in "Ella." Had I been able to use half-stars in these reviews, I would have put "Fairest" at two and a half stars, but since I can't, I scaled it back to two simply because I know Levine can do better than this. I adored "Ella Enchanted," and recommend it to anyone who cares to listen to me, but this follow-up book pales in comparison. Aza is a bit too dim-witted for her own good, and the reason I haven't mentioned much about her romance with Prince Ijari is simply because there isn't all that much to say. I laughed and cried alongside Ella, but all I wanted to do here was hand Aza a tissue and tell her to stop her endless moping.
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on January 21, 2008
To begin with, I loved "Ella Enchanted". It was a magical book. So it is with much disappointment that I write this review.

I really wanted to love this book. But I couldn't even stomach it most of the time. First of all, there was the obsession that the main character had with her looks. Every other sentence has something about her being "ugly". Either she's saying it to herself or someone else is saying it about her because it's understood that she's not good looking. The main character, on the other hand, is well known for having a beautiful voice. All the sentences that don't harp on her (bad) looks go into detail about her beautiful voice. (It makes one wonder what would happen to a character in that world who - HORRORS - doesn't have a beautiful voice or a great face.)

The Prince Charming of the book is also quite unlikable. Well, the reader is supposed to like him, but I found it difficult to like a hero who so readily turns his back on his 'beloved' - even when it means she will be imprisoned. And, then, when he sends her a letter asking her to forgive him, the heroine does it so easily that it's almost offensive to the reader that we're expected to just go along with it. I couldn't help but think that Ella of Frell would have kicked his rear end.

When I wasn't annoyed and turned off by the horrible characters, I was irritated by the inclusion of a song every two seconds. And they weren't even GOOD songs. So, I found myself skimming through most of the songs and that accounts for - at least - 50% of the book.

In short: If you must read, please get it from a library. I actually bought mine from a used bookstore at half off and I regret even spending that much.
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on September 27, 2006
"You are not my advisor".

I was her lark.

Aza was born singing. In fact in the land of Ayorthaian village of Amonta Aza means lark. The thing is Aza was born in an inn, by a woman who smuggled herself in and out, leaving Aza behind with the innkeepers. When the woman abandoned her the innkeepers took her in as one of their own. Now Aza lives with Ollo, Yarry, and Areida (whom readers may recognize from "Ella Enchanted").

Aza grows up quite the songbird, but the problem is that she is unattractive. Her cheeks are far to chubby, her skin far too pale, her lips far to blood red, her hair far too black. To top that off she has proportions quite unbecoming to a young woman, her shoulders and neck are too wide, and her height is far from diminutive. She manages her ego until she becomes a young woman of 15, but by then people's stares and rude comments are too much for her and she has developed many quirks to help hide her ugliness. She also has a peculiar gift that she calls illusing. This allows her to throw her voice at various objects and not move her lips. Being an excellent mimic also lends itself well to illusing, as she is able to convince people it was not her whose voice It was.

When she befriends duchess Olixo who frequents the inn she suddenly sees a chance to visit Ontio Castle, where King Oscaro is planning to wed Lady Ivi, a Kyrrian woman of 19 and incredible beauty. Garbed in the hideous castoffs of the Duchess' Aza enters into court as a companion, but quickly befriends Ivi after an accident involving the King renders him near comatose and is elevated to the status of a lady in waiting. She agrees to take this position as a means of providing much needed funds for her family as well as a chance to be near the Prince Ijori. The rub of the matter is that Ivi knows about Aza's talent for illusing and, being a poor singer herself, forces Aza to provide her voice for her at the court's many sings. Aza feels dirty and used, but her developing friendship with the prince encourages her to keep up the charade. Also there is a certain mirror that Ivi has in her possession that has shown Aza what it would be like to be beautiful, and the lure of that vision is far to great for her to resist. What's an unattractive girl to do?

Readers will appreciate the premise of "Fairest", as it is based off of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves". It is also se in the neighboring land of Ayortha, neighbor of course to Frell, whom we all remember from Levine`s Newbery Honor work "Ella Enchanted". This book is a sequel in a very loose sense that the story is set in the same world, but not about all of the same characters. While Areida, who was Ella's best friend, is present she is hardly ever written about, and Ella is only mentioned once towards the very end of the book. Aza, however, is a character worthy of Levine's ability. Whereas Ella found strength in defiance, Aza finds strength in her talent, as uses it to her quiet advantage. The thing I liked about Aza though is that she is far more overwhelmed by her looks than her talent, which most young girls uncertain with there selves will identify with. This is a realistic, everyday problem that we all have dealt with, an uncertainty of ourselves and how awkward and ugly we think ourselves. Now, her voice is sublime, so much so that she is the envy of others for it, and this singular talent allows her to keep her head high, even when she is being used for her abilities.

Levine deftly manages to bring details into this book that were present in "Ella Enchanted". Her lighthearted prose is comic and tragic at the same time, and yet lighthearted enough to not weigh the reader down. She manages to breathe life into some very likeable, and unlikable, characters. And the way that she blends Snow White elements within this world is very interesting. Even though we all know the story she manages to surprise us with some twists and turns we do not recognize as being original elements until later. This is a fantastic add to Levine's universe, a great read... and I hope to see more like it in the future (and, frankly, expect it now that I know she is willing to write sequels).
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on June 9, 2007
Most babies are born crying. Fifteen-year-old Aza, however, wasn't like most babies. Aza was born singing. A beautiful song, in a clear voice; yet still a peculiar way to announce yourself to the world. Perhaps that's why she has no idea whom her true birth parents are. Abandoned at the Featherbed Inn when she was a mere one month old, Aza has thanked her lucky stars each and every day that the Featherbed's proprietors were so welcoming, and took the little bundle of joy into their home, claiming her as their very own. Of course, it's quite obvious that Aza isn't their child by birth. After all, her introduction into the world isn't the only thing strange about her. Quite the opposite, in fact. Aza has skin as white as snow, lips as red as cherries, hair as dark as night, and a build that would frighten even an ogre. While her so-called parents and siblings are all fair and frail. Aza can't stand the rude looks she receives from everyone who stays within the confines of the Featherbed, and does what she can to make herself scarce when guests arrive. However, there are those whom she can't resist, such as a gnome named zhamM, and a Duchess with a flair for fashion, and a soft spot for felines. It is this Duchess who takes Aza away from her home at the Featherbed Inn, and brings her to the Kingdom of Ayortha, where she will see the King marry his new Queen, Ivi. The new Queen at just nineteen-years-old - a mere four years older than Aza herself - is the most lovely, breathtaking individual Aza has ever laid eyes upon. Her skin is beautiful, her hair long and flowing. Aza would give anything to have the face of Ivi. But there is one thing that Aza has, which Ivi wants more than anything...the gift of song. In the Kingdom of Ayortha, singing is the most important thing to do. Some sing full conversations, and one of the activities within Ayortha is writing your own songs, then sharing them with the Kingdom at scheduled Sings, which the royal family attends religiously. Ivi, not having the perfect voice, envies Aza's powerhouse vocals, and proposes a deal. She will make Aza her lady-in-waiting if Aza agrees to illuse - the title that Aza has given her ability to throw her voice. Aza is hesitant to comply with the Queen, but when her family's life and the Featherbed Inn are threatened, she can't refuse. Besides, if she were to leave the Kingdom of Ayortha, she would never have the chance to see the handsome Prince Ijori, and his faithful canine, Oochoo. Aza can't stand tricking the Kingdom day in and day out, but she knows that she must do so to protect her family. But the longer she works by Ivi's side, the more she begins to realize that something is not quite right. Ivi is in possession of an enchanted mirror - a wedding gift from the mixed-up fairy, Lucinda. The enchanted mirror shows a beautiful individual - the one thing Aza has always craved. And, as much as she works to avoid looking into its powerful glass, she can't resist. But as people begin to suspect Ivi's voice as being false, and look to Aza for answers, it becomes clear that if Aza doesn't conceal the one thing that has always made her special, she may fall into a trap that will leave her silent once and for all.

While CINDERELLA retellings have always been enjoyable to delve into, I've always found myself drawn to the - few - SNOW WHITE retellings that have surfaced over the years. So, after reading both Gail Carson Levine's ELLA ENCHANTED and THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE - among others - I was utterly thrilled to learn that she was penning a retelling of SNOW WHITE, in the form of FAIREST. Aza is much like the Disney-fied version of SNOW WHITE. Her looks are similar to those conveyed within the animated film. However, there is a strong difference in personalities. Aza is shy, and uncomfortable in her own skin. Her voice makes her stand-out, when she wants nothing more than to blend in, and, perhaps, even disappear within the crowd. She is awkward, and gawky, and quite conscious of the strange looks she receives from passersby, and is fairly unsettled by the treatment she receives from almost everyone she encounters. Through all this, however, Aza manages to find her voice, and do her best to stand up for herself, and show the world that she matters, and that she's an important addition to Ayortha. While she is oft-times mistreated by Queen Ivi - whose demeanor changes like the weather - it seems as if her time shared with the Queen works to give her more of a spine, and make her more confident in her own skin. It is this revelation that illustrates the lesson learned within the pages of FAIREST, that everyone is special, no matter how they look. And it's important to look on the inside, before making hasty judgements. Levine also tries to convey that staying true to yourself, and embracing your quirks and differences is essential. While this message rings loud and clear throughout the pages of FAIREST, it does not overshadow the main story. Levine's replacement of the Seven Dwarves with Gnomes is ingenious, and truly adds a unique spin to the retelling; while the various song lyrics riddled throughout the pages are quite entertaining, and bring not only laughter to the tale, but, at times, sadness, as well. Fans of Levine's ELLA ENCHANTED will be thrilled to see mention of Ella of Frell, and love learning that Aza is actually Areida's sister. The link between tales makes the characters even more appealing, and gives the reader a slight update on what is going on with past retelling characters. The FAIREST SNOW WHITE retelling in years.

Erika Sorocco

Freelance Reviewer
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on December 30, 2006
Levine captured me at a very young age with "Ella Enchanted" and "The Two princesses of Bamarre", but I felt she did a rather shoddy job with "Fairest", considering the talent she'd already displayed. Her story was certainly original, and for the most part intriguing, but I felt that her writing left much to be desired. She moved quickly, too quickly, through most of the climactic events, and wasted pages elsewhere describing useless information. It seemed to me as if she argued with her editor over the length of the book, and rather than cutting the superfluous portions, she kept all portions, but edited them to fit her editor's length suggestion, not necessarily to clarify or improve some sections. All in all, Aza irked me a tiny bit, and it seemed to me that her IQ could have easily been raised a few points. I also thought Aza's relationship with Ijori was....odd. It seemed very rushed, with no basis for it at all, and yet they still proffessed such strong feelings. Essentially, my review is this: the frame of the story if fairly solid, it was simply in the execution, the writing of the story, that Levine made her mistakes.
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VINE VOICEon September 17, 2007
I'm 30 years-old and loved this book. A wonderful version of Snow White complete with Levine's own personal style and touches. Levine writes so fluidly and gives so much humor to her heroines. I love how everything in her "make-believe world" still makes sense even though it isn't like our world. It's not hard to follow without Levine having to "talk down" to her readers. I loved that this book took place in the same world as Ella Enchanted!

Why only 4 stars? Although I really liked Aza and her character development, I was a bit disappointed in the development of the Prince. We never really got to know him. The relationship between Aza and the Prince never seemed to evolve, it just happened--Nothing like Ella and Prince Charmont. I just didn't fall in love with him, myself, like I did with Prince Charmont.

Other than that, I completely loved it. I've already lent it out to friends and family telling them, "you have to read this!"
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on July 21, 2009
I was excited to read a novel by Gail Carson Levine; but this book turned out to be less than I was hoping for. It make work out better for young girls, but I seriously doubt young adults or adults will find it all that engaging. On a side note I listened to this as an audio book and that was definitely...well...an experience. They used a full casting for the audio book and all of the songs were sung in all of their full operatic glory. I was riding my bike when I started listening to this book and I almost fell off of it when all the sudden music started pelting out in the middle of my audio book....

Aza thinks that she is ugly; she is too big and has different coloring from other people in the kingdom. Her parents run an inn and love her dearly, but they are not her birth parents (they found her on the steps of their inn as a baby). When Aza accompanies a Duchess to the wedding of their new king she feels drawn to the new Queen. The Queen ends up asking Aza to be her lady-in-waiting and from there Aza gets embroiled in a dangerous plot to help Queen Ivy save face.

This book is supposed to be a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It has some similarities to that story but more differences. If you think Disney took the grim out of Grimms Fairy Tales well then this book is Disney sugar coated with a cherry on top. There is so much happy ever after it is almost sickeningly sweet. The dire circumstances of the heroine are never really dire at all; the book is completely predictable.

Aza makes an unlikely role model for young girls. Aza (who is wed at 16 years old, I might add) is fifteen going on sixteen but has the mentality of a ten year old. Her obsessiveness with her ugliness is really...well...obsessive. She easily tosses morals aside to be beautiful. At the end she says she can't believe how much she has changed throughout the book; when not a few seconds earlier she was *again* whining about her ugliness. At times the author tries to excuse Aza being ugly because she sings so beautifully. Is it a requirement that everyone do one thing outstandingly wonderful to make them a good person?

All of the characters pretty much have this shallow level of depth. All the characters are type-cast. Not one single character does anything surprising.

Is there good in this book? If you read it knowing what to expect it is an okay book. It was actually what I expected, but not what I was hoping for. It is super cute, and super sugary. I as said it is a Disney film with heaps of sweetness added. That is not all a bad thing. The book ends how you expect and all the characters are just so good that you can't help but smile at times. Of course at other times you want to slap them for being so stupid, but I feel that way about Disney films too.

If you love Disney and you love cutsey and you want to be a princess then this book is for you. I think it will probably find appeal with younger girls who still dream of being a fairy princess. I think anyone over ten years of age will have trouble finding much to love here. This book did not make me eager to read more of Levine's books. Maybe if I am in the mood for more brainless sweetness I will check other out. Instead of reading this I would recommend "Princess Ben" by Catherine Murdock; this is also a sweet fairy tale but with more guts and more interesting characters.
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on December 21, 2007
I enjoyed this book though I felt it had far too many songs in it. I grew bored with those and the obsession with singing pretty quickly. I liked the characters though and enjoyed it overall. However, for a book that extols inner beauty and not judging people on their looks, I found it a bit of a double-standard that the kingdom's people judge everyone so harshly on their singing ability. Those that can't sing well are considered to bring bad omens or that they don't fit in. That really stuck with me and bothered me. It's not just a little thing; it's the reason the queen has to disguise her voice. It's true she's jealous of those with beautiful voices, but she also has to worry about being accepted because she doesn't have a good voice. I haven't read all the reviews so if this is a repeat of anyone else's ideas, sorry.
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