We’re not supposed to judge books by their covers. It’s a life lesson, and sometimes also a literal lesson about books. There’s no corresponding adage about book titles that I’m aware of, but sometimes you read a title and think you know the contents of the book. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is probably going to be about a dude named Harry Potter and a chamber, one that likely is or holds secrets. There’s nothing wrong with that; titling is hard, and sometimes even when you do get it right, publishers or whomever want to change it for you. But my point, buried somewhere in here, is that when I came across a book called Princess Academy, I had a pretty good idea what it was about. Two words, very specific, very straightforward. But Shannon Hale’s (Newbery-winning) novel is kind of anything but that. Spoilers to follow…

Well, let’s be fair, there is an academy and it is in regard to princesses. Mount Eskel, part of Danland but not a territory of said country, is the source of linder for the kingdom, a highly prized stone used in building palaces and the whatnot. The mountain folk don’t know this, though; they’re miners, they like being miners, they like mining and making fun of the lowlanders (stupid fancy lowlanders, never nearly starving in the winter). In any case, through some bizarre ritual, the priests of the lowlands have deduced that the Prince (Steffan)’s bride will come from Mount Eskel. So the high-muckity-mucks of Danland set up an academy on the mountain, so all age-eligible mountain chicks can go and get themselves fancied up for possible princesshood. A princess academy, if you will.

Enter Miri, fourteen, petite, and continually feeling useless because her father refuses to let her work in the quarry like literally everyone else. She gets schlepped off to the academy, where she learns that Tutor Olana, from the lowlands, thinks very little of Mount Eskel and doesn’t really care what she has to do to whip these illiterate mountain freaks into something resembling respectable. She repeatedly insults them, insults their parents, insults their village, and then whacks them around and locks them in closets with rats. It’s a raw deal. There is nary a princess to be seen.

But in the midst of all this suck, Miri finds out that she likes reading, she likes learning, and moreover, these things are important. She finds out that linder is actually quite desired and quite valuable, as Mount Eskel is the only place that has it, and that the traders have been stiffing the entire mountain community for who knows how long. So on her next jaunt into the village, she gathers the villagers and teaches them what she knows, and uses her new friend, orphaned loner from the lowlands Britta, to help her figure out prices and things like that, and they come up with a strategy to get the traders to actually listen to them, rather than taking their food and sauntering off into the night. Two fourteen year old girls essentially change the economy of a small mountain village, which is pretty awesome on its own.

The other thing Miri learns is quarry-speech. Again, being a bit small for her age, she’s been banned by her father from ever going into the quarry, so the ins and outs of quarry-speech are something of a mystery to her. All she knows is that it’s a way the miners communicate to one another in the mine, without words (though sometimes through song). Usually a warning, along the lines of, ‘Hey, that rock’s gonna break and we’re all gonna die.’ But it’s very spiritual in its way, communicated through feeling and available only to the miners, who, as Miri’s pa puts it, have linder in their blood. (He means this in the ‘we’re all in this together’ way, but rocks in one’s bloodstream sounds like one of the villagers ought to go for a medical degree.) It’s essentially another of those things that make Miri feel Other, keeping her ostensibly apart from the village and the community she loves.

Then one day, she’s returning a pilfered book when Olana catches her, accuses her of stealing, and locks her in the dank, dark closet. That is bad enough. Worse yet is that there’s a rat (a rat bite killed an infant in the village just last year). Worst of all is that Tutor Olana, that shining beacon of child safety and dedication to her craft, totally forgets she’s locked a teenager in a windowless room without food or water. So while waiting for rescue, to keep herself calm and hoping to scare off the rat and any potential friends, Miri sings a miners’ song. Lo and behold, this sparks a memory in fellow possible princess Gerti, who has spent time in the closet for being illiterate, and reminds Olana to let Miri out. This sparks a whole new line of thinking in Miri, because she knows that somehow she managed to communicate in quarry-speech without actually being in the quarry.

It turns out that once you dangle a crown in front of a series of teenagers who’ve been working in the mines and have spent their whole lives nearly starving to death in the winter, sisterhood is a forgotten concept. Naturally, the girls compete against each other to win the esteemed title of academy princess (not to be confused with princess academy), who won’t necessarily get the actual title of princess, but will get first dibs at Prince Blah-Blah. Competition is rough: Miri loves reading so she accidentally becomes the best at it. And the girls band against her, since her outspokenness cost the whole of them the privilege to visit home before the snow fell (thus stranding them in the academy for the winter), even though she was speaking up on their behalf. Of course, now with no one to hang out with, Miri can study even more, sucks to be everyone else.

But for the rest of her semi-isolated semester, Miri tries to figure out quarry-speech. She works out, through experimentation, that it’s based on shared memory and transferred through the presence of linder, which is everywhere. She manages to teach the others how to do it, save Britta, who isn’t origiinally from Mount Eskel and doesn’t remember things like eating butter when she was two. But of course the girls develop shared academy memories, which is great, because they can use those to communicate the answers to one another on the princess academy (not to be confused with academy princess) final, so they can all go to the ball. It’s a lovely moment of friendship and unity against a common enemy (Tutor Olana, standing in perhaps for classism and/or the patriarchy), if you ignore the whole cheating aspect.

What’s great about this book is that it takes a bunch of ladies and throws them together and says hey, cool things happen when ladies get together. Learn a mystic language and cheat on your exams! Play the ‘I am Spartacus’ game and buy yourself another day of life when bandits threaten to drain you! Learn Diplomacy and negotiate with your slightly sadistic tutor to get her to stop locking you in dark rooms! (No, but seriously, the law and/or magic is sort of dictating here that one of these girls is going to be future princess; it seems unwise to condemn any of your potential rulers to sit alone in a room of rats, single-mindedly focused on resenting you.) Learn that princes are kinda super boring and unfun! The book never suggests that femininity is the most important thing, nor does it say that it’s stupid and useless, which is a nice touch. It gives its characters arcs and lets them all be who they are with motivation behind it and without damnation. There is romance, but it’s not the smoochy-smoochy kind and is rather incidental. Nor does it relegate either character to simply being a love interest. (I would argue that Britta’s romance is a bit hastily thrown together at the end, but there was suitable plot evidence leading up to it, and also what do I know.)

In the end, Miri saves her friends from bandits, saves her village from destitution, wins academy princess, does not become an actual princess, dances for pleasure, dances without pleasure, marries no one (well, she’s fourteen), kisses no one, becomes a teacher, and never gains enough muscle mass to become a miner. She learns how much her father loves her and learns her place in her community, which is something most of us never manage. And I feel I ought to toss in here something about reading being fundamental. It is!