Garth Nix has a gift for writing interesting, complex and capable young women, as anyone who has read his Old Kingdom fantasy series (Sabriel, Lirael etc) will already know. In his new book, Frogkisser!, the young woman at the centre of the action is Anya, princess of a tiny magical kingdom under the de facto rule of her evil step-stepfather (it’s complicated) Duke Rikard, a sorcerer whose power and influence is growing by the day.
With Anya’s fickle older sister distracted by a succession of eager suitors, it’s up to the resourceful Anya to free the land from the tyranny of the duke and the rest of the League of Right-Minded Sorcerers. The league enforces its despotic rule using evil magic, while suppressing all knowledge of the straightforwardly named “Bill of Rights and Wrongs”, which was upheld during a more social-justice oriented period of this fairytale land’s history.
If it sounds as if the plot of Frogkisser! is more concerned with the establishment of democratic forms of government than your typical fairytale, that’s certainly true. In among all the magical potions, frogs that are really princes, wizards, witches and dwarves is a thoroughly modern story about the duty of those with power to use it for the empowerment of those without. Anya starts out fairly contented with her lot – she is, after all, a princess in a comfortable castle – but when the duke finally moves against her and her sister, Anya is finally driven to act, and to discover how unjustly the commoners are governed.
Not that Nix ever lets an overt concern with “themes” get in the way of a good story. Nix is such an inventive fantasy writer that, even when he purposefully draws on well-known fairytale tropes and traditions, it still feels delightfully unexpected and fresh. And between the nods to earlier fairytale traditions, Nix finds room for some of his own fantastical trademarks, including a brief visit to a vast and mysterious library, and another of his scene-stealing animal companions – this time in the shape of Ardent, one of a semi-magical line of talking royal dogs.
There’s a charm and understated wit to Frogkisser! that elevates it well above the crowded field of YA genre writing. Although it may not have the complexity or weight to achieve the crossover appeal of some of Nix’s earlier work, its intended audience of older children and younger teens will no doubt be enchanted. DV
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Garth Nix, Frogkisser!". Subscribe here.