Valiant

This started out really well.  It's a retelling of The Valiant Tailor or The Brave Tailor, which is a fairy tale that can be found in the Brothers' Grimm tales.  I had to go back and reread it because it isn't the most interesting or original of their collected tales.  Actually, it has a lot of elements of Greek and Roman storytelling in it--and probably other cultures as well--since the main character defeats giants with riddles and subterfuge.  It's like if Homer's Wily Odysseus were a tailor instead of a cunning Greek solider with a propensity for ticking off the gods.  Caution: the following review contains spoilers.

Saville and her father have left their home village after her father's spat with the local tailor's guild.  Basically, dear old dad wants to do what he wants to do (which, according to Saville's narration, is already what he does anyway) but with the approval of the guild.  When the guild refuses his request, Saville's father storms off and moves his family to Reggen, the capital city.  If the tailor were on the internet, we would probably call this an Epic Flounce.

Actually, I don't particularly blame the guild for disagreeing with Saville's father: he's a controlling brute who cares more about his velvets and jacquards than for his own daughter.  If I were a tailor in his village, I'd say good riddance to you!

While on the road to Reggen, Saville meets two men, one friendly and one cold, but they're obviously working together as they're bringing a report back of an advancing army of giants who eat people.  However, upon arriving in Reggen, Saville has no one, and discovers that her father has purchased a garret shop (basically an attic) and expects her to like it.  Well, actually, he doesn't care what she thinks because he is a jerk.  Conveniently, he has a fit of apoplexy and Saville realizes that in order to survive, she must become the tailor and make clothing for the king.

So, she's ambitious.  I like that.  She also has a bit of a vengeful side, keeping her father locked in the garret (okay, so he can't move, so it's not like he's going anywhere) and calling him Tailor instead of father.  At first, I thought, ah, this is not your typical YA heroine.

Saville takes in an orphan boy, Will (why does it seem that most scruffy-yet-lovable orphans in books are named either Will or Jack?), to help with the business tasks and take care of Tailor.  Meanwhile, she renames herself Avi and marches in to see the king to fit him for a new suit.  Reggen's king is an incompetent, weak nitwit.  At first I thought he was quite a bit older than his actual age: Saville paints him as a weak, middle-aged fellow, but he's really around her own age.  Hmm.  Anyway, there is kind of a smallish big deal (you know, not a Big Deal, but some fuss nonetheless) about the king's size and fitness level.  He's a bit pudgy, and Saville immediately infers from this that he is weak-willed and a ninny.  Body shaming is not limited to women.  Fat shaming extends to both men and women, and some writers use a characer's size as shorthand for their worth and inner values.  Fat=lazy and stupid; thin=catty OR unsexy (All of the heroines who moan about being "too thin" and "too tall" and having long legs make my eyes roll so hard that they complete a full orbit in their sockets.).  This is not good storytelling, and it is not good human behavior.  Even near the end of the book, when Saville has the opportunity to make more clothing for the king even after he knows she's a girl, he admits that she couldn't possibly feel any "desire" for him because of his body type.

Excuse.  Me.  Look around you.  Clearly the only people in relationships are people who look like magazine models, right?  Oh, wait.  Are you telling me that fat people are capable of loving and being loved too?  Just like every other human in the history of ever (excepting psychopaths and other psychological sports)?  Wow.  And what's more, are you also telling me that people who are bigger than the current social ideal can be smart, funny, creative, hardworking, and really, really strong?  Heavens above!  Where are my pearls, that I may clutch them?  Where is my fainting couch, that I may swoon?

Moving on...

As I mentioned, this is based on a fairy tale where a tailor manages to trick giants into leaving the kingdom alone (important plot point in many fantasy tales) AND performs some labors of Hercules for the king AND marries the king's daughter, who figures out he is a tailor.  Dear ol' dad does the sensible thing, which is, naturally, KILL THE TAILOR (what?  Is he Mugatu?)

The tailor, being Valiant, thwarts this and thumbs his nose at the king.  

I would think that all of that tricking giants business and joining the army (oh yes, he joins the army) and performing these tasks would take up quite a bit of time in Valiant.  Except Saville tricks the giants in the first quarter of the book.  I sat back and thought, "Well.  Now what?"

I'll tell you what: we'll drop heavy-handed hints about dancing 'round the Maypole with giants in peace and harmony because they are just so unbelievably nice (except for the ones that eat humans and wear bones as jewelry--they're naughty giants) AND toss in an awkward love story.

I cannot in good faith call this instalove.  Saville first meets Lord Verras on the road and calls him Fine Coat, which is clearly one of the worst insults I've ever heard.  However, when she's out there messing with the giants in order to save Will, Verras runs out to help Will to safety.  This cements him as the Love Interest in Jerk's Clothing.  And really, Verras isn't a bad guy--he's just really, really stressed out because his cousin, the king, is a nitwit, and his advisors are little better.  After Saville "defeats" the giants, the king proclaims her "champion" of Reggen.  But oh noes!  She is a girl.
Verras saves her life by making her a lady-in-wating to the Princess Lissa, who mostly moans about how she's a pawn in everyone else's games and doesn't get to do anything herself.  Except, hmm, Verras respects her, and the king is a pushover, so I suspect she could really do whatever she wanted. Anyway.  Saville lasts as a lady-in-waiting for like a chapter or something and then sneaks off to help Verras and say inane things like:

"All the way to the Tailor's room, I wondered: what sort of nobleman is that unused to thanks?"  Um, pretty much all of them, honeybunches.  They're noblemen.  By virtue of claiming that title, they proclaim themselves to be better than other people.  Why would they be excited that somebody thanked them.  It would gratify pride but little else.  

"He [Verras] cleared his throat, as though he were unused to giving such praise.  'It just would be easier if you were a man.  Much easier.'  I smiled and gestured to my clothing.  'If only you knew how many times I've thought that.' "  Soooo ... everything would be better if you were a guy.  Way to GO on the female empowerment bit.  Saville isn't proud of who she is--she's ashamed that she's female.  Ew.

Of course Saville and Verras fall for each other, and he demands that she call him Galen, so for the first half of the book he is strictly "Lord Verras" and for the second he is strictly "Galen," which confused me a bit.  I kept thinking, "Didn't he have another name?  Who's this Verras guy ... oh yeah, him."  Saville is convinced that the giants are really good people, so she sneaks out, meets one, lies to him, but also becomes his friend, and then goes back to try and convince Galen that we should be friends with the giants.

Except now there's a bigger problem.  See, the giants aren't attacking Reggen on their own initiative.  If they had it their way, they'd just be mining in the mountains and carving stuff, as giants do (I thought that was dwarves, but okay.  Fine.  I'll roll with this).  A man calling himself the Duke of the Western Steeps, Heir to the ancient Emperor's crown, Holder of the Eternal Heart leads them.  We get another clichéd description of him: "He was tall and powerfully built, reminding me of a warhorse.  His hair was blue-black, like a raven's wing, and was tied back from his face."  The raven-warhorse duke demands a) King Elgin's surrender, b) Princess Lissa's hand in marriage, and c) I don't know, fear?  He's really theatrical with the demands: "I will either sit on this trhone as husband to the princess Lissa, or I will build myself a throne out of the rubble and bones of a ravaged enemy.  It will be mine."  All that's missing is his leather gloved fist shaking in the air.  

So after Saville's nighttime talks with Volar the Friendly Giant yield the information that the Duke leads the army because he is invincible and pretended that he had some woo-woo giant king powers (that whole bit made zero sense to me, so, moving on).  The Duke is invincible because he is a thinly veiled version of Koschei the Deathless, which pulled me back into the story again.  I love a good Koschei retelling.  Yet again, my hopes were dashed when everything fell into place so neatly.  Plus, the Duke really wasn't that scary.  Eh.

I admire that the author decided to take on a lesser-known fairy tale, but had she paced it better, it wouldn't have felt as if the characters just wandered around for three-quarters of the book (the last three quarters, no less!).  I can't understand how Saville could go from loathing someone to loving him (again, not instalove, but more like sudden and acute irrational love), and some of the prose was just so cringeworthy.  Example: "I looked up, hardly daring to breathe, hoping he'd be able to see everything I couldn't say.  Gently--so gently!--he captured my hand and placed it over his heart, pressing it to him until I could feel his heartbeat against my palm."  What's up with the exclamation in the middle of the phrase?  What is this, Shakespeare?  Naw, just good ol' Lord Verras, who "looked at me like I was velvet."  What does that even mean?  You have a good plushiness to you?  You are jewel toned?  You are expensive?  You get static cling in the winter thus causing people like me to avoid velvet like the plague?

Somehow I managed to write reams about this and yet not really go into a ton of particulars about the plot.  That's because the plot has about ten separate plot points going on and we never fully explore them.  

What I learned from this book: If you lie to people, take in a spunky orphan, trick giants, sew pretty clothes, and insist that singing Kumbaya with giants is a great diplomatic option, then you too can marry the prince's cousin!

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

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