Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Release Date: March 18, 2008
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Pages: 344
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads Page


From Goodreads:

Benevolence is not your typical princess and Princess Ben is certainly not your typical fairy tale. With her parents lost to unknown assassins, Princess Ben ends up under the thumb of the conniving Queen Sophia, who is intent on marrying her off to the first available "specimen of imbecilic manhood." Starved and miserable, locked in the castle's highest tower, Ben stumbles upon a mysterious enchanted room.

So begins her secret education in the magical arts: mastering an obstinate flying broomstick, furtively emptying the castle pantries, setting her hair on fire...

But Ben's private adventures are soon overwhelmed by a mortal threat facing the castle and indeed the entire country. Can Princess Ben save her kingdom from annihilation and herself from permanent enslavement?


Oh just get to it already!

I could have so easily loved Princess Ben. All of the elements I usually adore were there for me: A PRINCESS (that gets the book points right there), a hate-turned-love romance, magic!, and a sprinkling of nods to various fairy tales. What's not to love?

Apparently, Ben. You're not supposed to like Ben all that much in the beginning because this is one of those stories where the character grows to become someone better than who she started out as.

Again, normally I love that--but not when she's unlikable for 3/4 of the book! Her turn around in the final quarter was so rapid that I really had a hard time buying it.

How can a book with magical sparkly light swirls on the cover be boring???

This all could have been much improved had the first 3/4 been more tightly written. And maybe narrated differently. The whole story is told with Ben's first person narration, but she's telling it as an old woman looking back on her life. I found her voice to be stuffy, dull, and lending very little excitement to the tale.

Not only was Ben annoying me, but I was also so bored. When Ben finally started learning magic I thought, "Oh good, magic will make it all better!" but that didn't happen. Honestly, I'm sort of in shock. Magic has never failed me like this before. But for whatever reason, reading along as Ben learned how to conjure water and fire (and spend an equal amount of time cleaning) was about as interesting to me as watching grass grow.

Which is to say, NOT interesting. I'm still confused, but I think part of the reason this was so boring was because Ben was completely alone during all of these lessons. She didn't have an old wizard or a sweet witch or a handsom anyone to teach her, mock her, or provide witty banter with her. It was just Ben.

Also, there was no conflict or distinct experiences between her lessons. It was always just, "Open book, read spell, try spell, master spell!" Sometimes she would say the equivalent to, "I practiced for months" between "try" and "master" but that isn't very exciting either.

Heroine replacement, please?

Ben spends the first 3/4 of the book as a sulky, self-absorbed, sheltered little girl with no regard for the kingdom she will inherit and zero social skills.

And I don't mean she's shy. I mean she's rude. Boorish, even.

I would have thought I might have sympathized and related to Ben a little bit over her tendency to over-eat. Because, you know, I like food too, so we have that in common.

But, jeez, can you say obsessed? (Well, ok, to be fair, yes, she kind of is. Ben doesn't just like eating, she eats as a way of coping with stress and the loss of her parents). Ben is significatly overweight and focuses much of her energy on stealing food after her guardian puts her on a diet. Instead of being sympathetic, Ben came across as a self-indulgent whiner.

Besides, couldn't she have done something more interesting with her magic than learn how to sneak into the kitchen at night?? She found secret passageways for crying out loud, and all she could think of to do with them was steal food?! I was practically in the depths of despair over such a tragedy of missed opportunities.

By the time she became someone I *might* consider as a lunch table companion, I'd already spent way too much time wishing she'd bite it (and I don't mean food).

But I really could have loved this book

If I forget about Ben and all the boring parts there's actually a pretty awesome story here. It's exciting and adventurous and even reminds me of Gail Carson Levine with both authors' inventive takes on magic and creatures. I also really liked the world building and I pretty much loved--or was at least interested in reading about--every character (with the exception, of course, of Ben. Though even Ben got a lot better in the final quarter).

The mystery of Ben's missing father was also creatively written with enough suspicion thrown around that I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome. And there was even a scene that made me laugh out loud! (For those who have read Princess Ben already: mud). Plus, it was fun seeing all the different fairy tales woven into the story.

Bottom line

I'm very glad I read Pica's review or I probably would have DNF-ed during part 1. Pica echoed my own lack of enthuasiasm with the beginning of the book, so I decided to keep reading because she assured me it would get better. And she was right!

Even with all my complaints, I'm still happy I read Princess Ben and had the experience of the story (even if I didn't love the storytelling). I'll probably even re-read it now that I know which parts to skip over to get to the good stuff (part 1-mostly skip, part 2-skip a little, part 3-don't skip much, part 4- no skipping).

Princess Ben is a standalone. 

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Do you have any questions about Princess Ben that I haven't addressed? 
Feel free to ask in the comments!

Looking for another book like this? 
You might like: 

Click on the covers to go to my reviews.


  1. Aww! I think I liked Ben a little more but I see your points.

    Ben isn't always very likable and the ending was a bit rushed.

    That's all true.

    And the magic was a lot of work. LOL

  2. I've heard mixed things about this book. I wonder if fantasy just isn't Murdock's forte. I adore her Dairy Queen books. Have you read them?

  3. I totally get where you're coming from. I thought the story perked up a little after the first quarter, but having read your review, I find I agree.

    And I must say:
    "Besides, couldn't she have done something more interesting with her magic than learn how to sneak into the kitchen at night?? She found secret passageways for crying out loud, and all she could think of to do with them was steal food?! I was practically in the depths of despair over such a tragedy of missed opportunities." YES! Exactly!

    Glad you liked it in the end, even if it wasn't your favorite. (And thanks for linking to my review. :D)

  4. I think I have this on my to-read shelf but I'll probably only give it a try if I enjoy Wisdom's Kiss. Otherwise there are too many other books for me to read and enjoy!

  5. Great honest review Small. It sounds like it got off to a slow start but was worth it in the end :)

  6. It is a stand alone, but the "companion" novel just came out, in which Ben makes an appearance. Wisdom's Kiss. It's told from MANY POVs, maybe too many -- so different from Ben in that respect...

  7. Huh, I never expected this to be told as a flashback and I'm not sure about reading a heroine who I don't like for about 75% of the book. I have read Murdock's Dairy Queen series which I absolutely adored but I'm not sure if this book is right for me. Thanks for your honest opinions, Small!

  8. Alex, Haha yes, the magic was a lot of work! I did end up warming to Ben by the end.

    Alison, That's what I'm thinking. I haven't read her Dairy Queen books yet, but so many people love them that I think I'll give them a try.

    Pica, I did like it in the end and I'm happy I read it. I guess I was just hoping for more.

    Bookworm1858, I liked Princess Ben A LOT more than Wisdom's Kiss, FWIW.

    Ni, Yes exactly!

    Annette, I know! I read and reviewed Wisdom's Kiss last month. I liked Princess Ben more though.

  9. Huh. Sounds like Ben could be my other half. LOL

    I think I would have given up, even if I'd read reviews that told me not to because I would have told myself, it's one of those that works for everyone but me. I'll keep this review in mind next time I'm temped to do that. :)

  10. I'm with you: I love stories where the MC improves their character over the course of the book but not until 3/4 of the way through? Not good.

    Sorry to hear that the magic failed you in this one. I feel that way about Dark Mirror, which I am reading now (their magic powers are soooo lame).

    So too bad about this one. Honestly, I rarely ever read a princess book that I like. Maybe I am only reading the bad ones?

  11. I agree. The magic passageways were awesome and while I admit that I would have spent at least some of the time stealing from kitchen pantries, I'd probably do a lot of spying, too. I mean, seriously--what an opportunity!

  12. Since I just finished reading (and reviewing) The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I think I might find this one a little less interesting. I'll keep it in mind for when I'm in the mood for a fantasy, but I'll probably pass on it for now because the magical lessons sound like a drag and the MC's development to someone likeable is too sudden. Thanks, Small!

  13. Missie, aw, I can't imagine any half of you being bratty like Ben. :)

    Aylee, Yes! Character growth stories are the best, but I need to start liking them a lot sooner than 3/4 in! I felt pretty meh about Dark Mirror. Hm, I'm going to have to think of a good princess book for you.

    Rubita, Oh I totally would have stolen from the kitchen, but I also would have done a ton of spying and searching for long buried secrets.

    A Canadian Girl, Yes, much less interesting than The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Elisa had a similar thing with food, but I thought Elisa was so much more sympathetic and likable. I can see you liking Princess Ben, but I wouldn't rush to it.


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