The Unhandsome Prince is in many ways a more accomplished and satisfying novel than Moore's 2004 hit Heroics for Beginners (which it actually predates, having first seen print in, of all places, the Czech Republic). It is just as funny as Heroics, but more confidently plot-driven. The jokes rely less on gags and spoofs of genre tropes, and are more firmly rooted in story. All in all I think fans of Heroics will find this a much better piece of entertainment, and the two books together will go far in cementing a solid fan base for John that will carry his career into the foreseeable future. I enjoyed it immensely myself, but for one iffy subplot which I'll get into here in a moment.
Prince Hal, reposing on a lilypad near the hamlet of Ripplebrook, gets de-froggified by a kiss from the beautiful Caroline. But Caroline is a little disappointed by her catch; princes are supposed to be handsome, and Hal, well, isn't. (You've gotten this far from the title.) Caroline feels that Amanda, the recently deceased sorceress who transformed Hal in the first place, reneged on her contract with the village girls. Caroline feels she is entitled to a prince somewhat better than plain, and expects to collect. Otherwise, she may legally sieze Amanda's estate, including all her magical books, as recompense. And this would not be to the liking of Emily, Amanda's mage-in-training daughter, at all.
Fortunately, Hal has two older brothers who are the picture of studliness. And so off Hal, Emily and Caroline go to the royal palace in the City of Melinower, Caroline with the intent of finding her prince, and Emily in the hopes of gaining a wizarding apprenticeship. The girls are introduced to Hal's brothers, Jeff (the gentleman) and Kenny (the jerk). Shallow Caroline isn't particular; she'd be just as happy with either of these two (though she leans towards Kenny, the putative heir to the throne), which is just as well with Emily, who's developing, naturally, a powerful crush on Hal. But they soon learn that the royal family is virtually insolvent, due to the fiscal irresponsibility of the king and Kenny. In fact, they'd be altogether bankrupt were it not for the valiant efforts of Jeff to balance the books as best he can. But when Hal and Jeff learn of Kenny's wicked plan to get the family out of debt, Hal hurriedly forms plans of his own to save the royal purse, put Jeff on the throne with Caroline on his arm, and Kenny in his place once and for all.
The plotting here is solid, the pacing pitch-perfect, and the heroes even more warm and likable than they were in Heroics. Moore manages to work both Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin into the proceedings, which enhances the fairy tale flavor of things well. But he also works something else in that doesn't, and while Moore's goals are most admirable, I'm dubious about the results. You see, that wicked plan of Kenny's to get the royal family in the black? It involves expelling the city's Jews.
This is an entirely historically accurate portrayal of how medieval royals often got themselves out of financial pickles. Just prior to reading this book, I read John Kelly's The Great Mortality, a don't-miss history of the 14th century Black Death, and so I was in the lucky position of having had a recent medieval Europe refresher course. Jews in medieval times fell into mercantilism and money-lending because, due to deeply entrenched anti-Semitism, there were few other careers open to them; they couldn't own land, couldn't enter politics or do much at all. Some Jews became fabulously wealthy, which, bigotry being what it is, only served to deepen anti-Semitism even more. Now, as in The Unhandsome Prince, when real-life medieval royal families went into debt, it was often Jewish money-lenders to whom they were indebted. Hence the practice of running Jews out of the country and seizing their property. Kelly reports that Jews were expelled from France in 1306, readmitted in 1315, expelled again in 1322, readmitted in 1359, and expelled yet again in 1394.
That John Moore wants to address the dark subject of anti-Semitism in his novel is praiseworthy. But its inclusion as a subplot raises some questions from a narrative standpoint. What John has set up is a charming fairy-tale world of fair maidens and frogs-into-princes, with just enough postmodern wit to incorporate such notions as the legalese of having spells cast on you, or the cute character touch of having Rapunzel turn out, for obvious reasons, to be an expert on all things hair-related (does John wear a hidden wire into salons?).
Suddenly into the midst of all this cuteness and charm he throws a hand grenade like anti-Semitism, which, among other things, hints at a world in which Christianity might also exist (but he doesn't bring it up). Sure, anti-Semitism can be ethnically-based, but the prejudice in medieval Europe that led to the behavior John depicts in his book was most assuredly rooted in Church teachings about Jews as Christ-killers. If Jews in John's world are expelled, as they were in France and England, what else do the people of Melinower do to them? Are they marched into empty barns and set ablaze? What I'm driving at is that the inclusion of anti-Semitism as a subplot in The Unhandsome Prince opens a narrative Pandora's Box that might be more trouble than John intended. A sense of awkward discomfort envelops the book whenever it comes up. It feels like there's this tug of war going on, where, on one hand, John wants to address social injustice and prejudice as a serious theme, but on the other, he wants to keep the book, for the most part, a fairly safe piece of entertainment, the kind of book that, at the end of the day, is mainly meant to put a smile on the cherubic faces of the kinds of fantasy fen who stroll through conventions in costume. I think if you're going to make something like anti-Semitism a theme of your story, either tackle it head-on like Schindler's List (which, I suppose, would preclude your ability to write a comedy) or leave it out. As it is, John incorporates anti-Semitism without really addressing it meaningfully. The Jews just become someone for the hero to save. Would it have been better if John had, say, invented his own racial minority and made his points allegorically? (I'm thinking of Oisín McGann's recent The Gods and Their Machines here.) Hard to say.
What I can say is that a little controversy never hurt anything, and I think what the vast majority of readers will come away from The Unhandsome Prince with is, indeed, a big smile. There may be a lot of argument as to whether John's thematic ambitions were wisely chosen, let alone executed, but no one will argue that there's magic in a kiss.