This is the only book I can remember that when I reached the end, I went back to the beginning and read it again. Three times. I’ve reread almost all of my books, but I don’t think I’ve even read The Lord of the Rings twice consecutively. Of course, that may have something to do with The Lord of the Rings being 1031 pages (and that’s if you don’t read the appendixes, which provide an addition 107 pages of reading material) while The Two Princesses of Bamarre is a mere 293. I think one reason it appealed to me so much as a child is that it was very easy to associate the two main characters with my sister and I, my sister being Meryl and I being Addie.
The book is written in first person, and the younger sister, Addie, is the narrator. She doesn’t have a very high opinion of herself and is constantly comparing herself to her older sister, Meryl. Meryl has an adventurous spirit and yearns for adventure, practicing fencing and reciting from their favorite epic poem Drualt. Drualt is constantly referenced throughout the book, and is about a young hero who battles gryphons, ogres, and dragons. Meryl dreams of being like Drualt, while Addie can’t even handle the sight of a single spider.
Their adventure begins when Addie is almost lured into the woods by a spectre. Meryl saves her just in time, and orders the spectre to tell her when her next adventure will begin. The spectre tells her that the next adventure won’t be what she expects, and then vanishes. A few days later, one of the servants in their castle contracts the Gray Death. This disease has been plaguing Bamarre for centuries and is the driving point of the plot. It comes in three stages: the weakness, which lasts an indefinite amount of time; the sleep, which lasts nine days; and the fever, which leaves the victim’s face ashen gray and lasts for three days before the disease ends in death. There is no known cure, though it had been prophesied that “the cure would be found when cowards found courage and rain fell over all Bamarre” (4). Addie tries to convince the servant to fight against the disease by continuing her daily routine when she felt weak, by refusing to sleep, and by keeping herself warm through physical activity. Not too long after, Meryl also contracts the Gray Death.
Addie is rightfully terrified, but she takes hope when King Lionel, a well-known coward, decides to seek the cure for his daughter. Unfortunately, he gives up after one of his men is nearly killed by a spectre. Furious at her father for giving up so easily, cowardly Addie decides to go after the cure herself. Rhys, the apprentice sorcerer who is spending his required time in the king’s court, gives Addie some special gifts to help her in her quest: a near-invisibility cloak that can fool every creature but spectres and dragons, a magic tablecloth that can produce an infinite amount of food out of thin air, and non-magical maps of the kingdom. The nurse elf, Milton, and the princesses’ governess, Bella, also give Addie gifts. Milton gives Addie a packet of flowers that help relieve pain, while Bella gives Addie peasant clothes and passes on gifts from the late queen: a magic spyglass and a pair of seven league boots. Meryl gives Addie her sword, Blood-biter, wishing she could be the one wielding it instead. Addie sneaks out of the castle at dawn, her plain clothes giving her the impression of a servant and allowing her to escape into the countryside to begin her quest.
Addie literally bumbles into an ogre almost right away. Since ogres are the stupidest of the monsters plaguing Bamarre, he is quickly dispatched and gives Addie a much needed boost of confidence. Her confidence is shaken after her second encounter with a spectre, but she continues on her quest anyway. Rhys pops in and out of the story, constantly checking on Addie and worrying about her. He has to attend the Sorcerer’s Council, and Addie has him keep tabs on Meryl for her, otherwise you get the impression he would have stayed to help the princess on her quest. When Addie decides to seek out a dragon for the cure, Rhys tells her that dragons are anti-social, but get lonely, and that the best way to get the cure out of the dragon was to keep it entertained. On her way to a dragon’s lair, Addie is beset by gryphons and uses her tablecloth to trick the gryphons into eating themselves to death. The gryphon carcasses lure the great dragon (!!!) Vollys into appearing. She kidnaps Addie and whisks the princess to her lair for company–after gorging on the stuffed gryphons.
Vollys keeps Addie trapped there, rewarding her for keeping her entertained by giving her gifts of treasures from her horde. Addie wants nothing to do with the treasures, imagining what misfortune befell on their previous owners, but Vollys warns her that she will need the treasure to survive. Addie eventually understands that Vollys will give her treasures when she’s happy, but when she’s irritable, she will take the treasures away, and when the treasures are gone, Addie will die. Addie sacrifices four pieces of her treasure to the dragon in exchange for knowledge of the cure to the Gray Death, but then has to suffer knowing the cure while being unable to help her sister. Addie constantly uses her magic spyglass to check on Meryl while she’s stuck in Vollys’s lair, and her despair grows when Meryl enters the final stage of the Gray Death. A strange presence keeps her hopes up during her imprisonment, however, and Meryl manages to twice escape Vollys’s lair.
Using the seven league boots to race back home, Addie reaches Meryl on her final day of life with news of the cure. Knowledge of the cure isn’t enough. Addie has to take Meryl to the source of the cure, with only hours left before her beloved sister dies. Rhys goes with them, carrying Meryl who has some strength but is still quite sick. Rhys and Addie manage to get a few villagers to guide them to the location of the cure, but Vollys is waiting for them with a host of monsters. Meryl is weak, and Addie, Rhys, and the villagers are outnumbered, and there’s only a half hour ‘till sunrise when Meryl is scheduled to die.
If you want to know if they reach the cure in time, you have to read the book for yourself.
One of the funniest things about Addie’s character is her immense fear of spiders. She has Rhys banish the arachnids from the palace right after they meet, and before him she’d had Meryl remove any spider that she caught sight of. She almost doesn’t set out at all when she catches sight of a spider in the Mulee Forest. She defeats an ogre, faces down a spectre, and kills a flock of gryphons, but it isn’t until she’s Vollys’s captive that she finally manages to face and defeat a simple spider.
Another thing that I enjoyed about this tale was that it presents the reverse view of the standard hero. While in Vollys’s lair, Vollys gives Addie the dragon version of Drualt, portraying him as a murdering monster. Addie is offended because Drualt is her hero, but I, as the reader, can see how the dragons have this view of him, especially when you find out that Drualt killed Vollys’s mother.
This book positively delights me. I love the relationship between Meryl and Addie, and I love watching Rhys and Addie fall for each other. Addie’s character is very dynamic, her courage and confidence growing as she faces one fear after another. It is rewarding to watch her grow from a timid girl to a brave woman who wants to fight for peace in her kingdom. The Two Princesses of Bamarre has an interesting twist at the end, but one that I believe will satisfy the reader.
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Recommended Reading Age: 10+
Favorite Character: Rhys the sorcerer. He’s very dramatic and curious, always excited about everything. My favorite part of his character is that he’s always bowing, and not just the simple bow, a flourishing bow. I think how he bows says a lot about his actual character.
Favorite Scene: When Addie accuses Rhys of being a spectre. He gets so flustered and distraught at her accusation because he only wants her approval. It’s an adorable scene.
Favorite Quote: Be brave, Bamarre!/Go forth, Bamarre,/The timid with the strong./Let not your heroes/Fight alone. (193)
Levine, Gail Carson. The Two Princesses of Bamarre. New York: HarperTrophy, 2001
 Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.