Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill

“In most fairy tales, princesses are beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. This isn’t most fairy tales.”

What a terrible, transformative, true (in the best sense of the word) book.

Iron Hearted Violet is a story about an ugly but beloved princess who lives in a “mirrored world” where for time immemorial the thirteenth-god-who-is-never-named-aloud has been imprisoned for the protection of the multiverse from his destructive and evil tendencies. However, Violet’s world, and indeed the entire multiverse, created by the other twelve gods, is in imminent danger of being taken over by the evil Nybbas (who should never be named).

It’s a story about sin and pride and the desire for power and worship of ourselves and also about love and loyalty and true beauty. The book dares to say things that are counter-cultural and also run counter to the usual fantasy tale tropes:

“There are other ways to be brave without demonstrating it with the sword. Most battles are won by changing minds and turning hearts. Sometimes that’s all the bravery you need.”

“A real princess engages with the world in a state of grace. It is with grace that she listens and with grace that she speaks. A princess loves her people, no matter what their birth or station. Even ugly jailers.”

“Love [is] sharp and hot and dangerous. . . Love transforms our fragile, cowardly hearts into hearts of stone, hearts of blade, hearts of hardest iron. Because love makes heroes of us all.”

This book has a “Hobbit feel” to it, not in the plot or the characters (although there is a dragon), but in the flow of the story and in its moral universe and in its message. Small, unlovely things and people can have great significance. In fact, an ugly princess and her stable-boy best friend and an old, fear-filled dragon might be both the betrayers and the saviors of the world.

Two things I didn’t like about the book:
1. The pictures of Violet in the beginning of the book and on the cover, where she is supposed to be ugly, show a cute little girl with beautiful curly hair and lovely features. She is described:

“Her left eye was visibly larger than her right. . . Her nose pugged, her forehead was too tall, and even when she was just a baby, her skin was freckled and blotched, and no number of milk baths or lemon rubs could unmark her. People remarked about her lack of beauty.”

Just as it happens in the story itself when the storyteller/narrator tells Violet to make her story princesses beautiful to please the listeners, the illustrator (or someone) couldn’t resist making Violet pretty instead of showing her in all her asymmetrical, wild, and unattractive glory.

2. The impotence and limited-ness of “the gods.” There are twelve gods in this story who are said to have created the multiverse and saved it from deadly peril, but are now remote, removed and “still learning.” These gods are not omnipotent, not omniscient, and actually rather like benevolent gods of a clockwork multiverse, set in motion and left to function on its own. One of the gods, the “runty god”, does intervene but in a rather ineffective way.

Nevertheless, those two failings are outweighed by far by the lovely story-telling and surprising plot developments and outstanding characters and themes of Iron Hearted Violet. I recommend it for lovers of fantasy and princess books.

3 thoughts on “Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill

  1. Amy @ Hope Is the Word

    Sounds great!

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