A beautiful singing voice, lovely wit, but terribly homely features. Add these characteristics together to finish with Aza, daughter of two unknowns and adopted child of an innkeeper and his family. Although Aza has wondrous areas, they are buried underneath the thickness of shame and low self-esteem caused by many years of wordless insults targeted at her "ugliness." With "lips as red as a dragon's tongue, skin so white it has a blue pallor (similar to spoiled milk), and hair as black as an old frying pan," Aza tries to hide away from the world and further embarrassment...
But one night, after a depressing day, the duchess of the kingdom of Ayorthia stops by the inn. Recognizing Aza as someone with secret potential, she insists that Aza comes back to the castle with her to witness the wedding of King Oscaro to a commoner... a heartstoppingly beautiful commoner. After the ceremony, the new Queen Ivi asks Aza to be her lady-in-waiting (it is curious that a stunning person would want only a plain person to serve them, is it not?), and Aza accepts, not knowing where else in the world she could try to belong.
At first Aza is relatively happy. She knows her place now, and is even developing feelings for the prince, Blahblah. However, this all changes when the queen learns of Aza's uncanny singing talents and forces Aza to 'illuse' (lip-synching with Aza as the hidden singer and Ivi as the lip-syncher) for her, with the threat that the queen will ruin her family's inn if Aza does not comply. On top of this, the king is gravely injured as the result of an accident... and Aza fears that the currently lonely Queen Ivi will now try to steal Prince Blahblah's heart.
Aza's life truly begins to crumble when her 'illusing' for the queen is discovered. Aza's voice is now thought to be so extraordinary-- too extraordinary--- that the royal court accuses her of being half-ogre... which, they feel, would explain her displeasing countenance. That night, Aza escapes secretly from the prison cell she now calls home. Traveling with her is a horse, a kind guard and the newly-found knowledge of Ivi's secret behind her beauty: a deadly one. Aza realizes she must warn her betrayers of the life-threatening secret even if it would mean her capture and immediate execution.
Gail Carson Levine rearranges the pieces to the puzzle of Snow White's story into a novel, into which is woven adventure, love, treachery, danger, and the battle between ugliness and beauty... a battle Aza fights with herself for this entire story. With a medley of characters: some with hearts as black as an old frying pan, others with love as strong as a dragon's red tongue, Levine creates another novel worthy not of a bookcase, but a treasure chest.
Review by A.