C. S. Lewis once wrote that “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.” I am inclined to agree with him. My favorite books are the ones that I liked at age 12, love at 22, and will probably treasure at 42. They are books like The Chronicles of Narnia, or Little Women, which yield new riches and give rise to new connections with each reading, the books that have sparked countless conversations with my mother. Daughter of Arden: Exile is one such book. Based on the Grimm’s fairy tale “Maid Maleen,” it is the first in a new fantasy trilogy by Loren G. Warnemuende.
Both high fantasy and coming-of-age, it tells the story of Princess Maleen, who is tired of her life at Ardenay Castle. Her mother is dead, her father is occupied with preparations for war, and Maleen herself is constantly surrounded by tiresome ladies-in-waiting. She longs for privacy, close companionship, and to be reunited with her beloved Prince Melanor.
But her father has other plans. The kingdom is threatened by the Aharrans, the heathen tribes of the south. To Maleen, the king’s efforts to protect her feel like oppression. He gives her two options: either to marry Prince Jared, who she does not love, or to be shut inside an impenetrable tower on the cursed ground of Bannett Hill. She rebels against her father’s control and refuses to give up Melanor.
“‘I choose the tower,’ she said, and the weight of the stone pressed in around her.”
Before she enters, her father gives her a blessing. Closing his eyes, raising his head to the heavens, he chants:
“You cannot ignore the hand of the One Who Leads, Your destiny is in His hands. Blessed will you be, oh Princess of Sorrow, Your search has found its destination. That which you run from will be your final goal.”
To Maleen, these words sound like a curse, a decree that she will never escape. But what if the things she is running from are the things she needs most?
Not for nothing did Warnemuende spend 25 years crafting this tale, seasoning it with the wit and wisdom she learned along the way. Her voice is a delight, rich but accessible, and she reminds us that one need not use 18th Century English in order to use English well. She makes each scene tangible, and gives the Kingdom of Arden what Tolkien called “the inner consistency of reality.”
The people of Arden are equally real. Their culture is reminiscent of both Medieval Europe and the Old Testament, and is laden with tradition and prophecy.
Like real people, the characters’ communication styles, emotions, and motives are shaped by their experiences. Growing up is difficult to navigate, and familial relationships are often complicated. As Maleen interacts with her father, with her motherly maidservant, and ultimately with her God, she is made to question the way she sees the world.
Near the beginning of the book, Maleen remembers the words of the gardener: “Dirt is your friend. . . There are different kinds, of course. Some are more fertile than others. But each is designed to help certain things grow.”
Perhaps even in the barren ground of Bannett Hill, faith can take root. In the isolation of the Tower, companionship can be found. And even in smoke and darkness, the Mighty One speaks.
Such wisdom makes Exile a rare masterpiece. I can hardly wait for book two.
NOTE: The sequel, Daughter of Arden: Wandering, is available from Bandersnatch Books June 13th!