• Pennyroyal Academy: An Equestria Daily Review

    We've known M.A. Larson as the dashing rogue writer for Friendship is Magic who cannot be stopped from putting wings on anything without regard for the consequences. But it seems that forging princesses in the fiery crucible of Friendship is an addictive business, because he's back at it again with his debut novel: Pennyroyal Academy. We're here today to talk a little bit about that book and help you figure out if you should, as he has so often asked over the past few weeks, "Buy [his] book."

    Pennyroyal Academy is very much a story cut from the same cloth as Friendship is Magic - it's charming and intelligent storytelling set in a fairy tale world. It's empowering and it's honest, and it's also written to be read by children without excluding adults. If you enjoy Larson's work on My Little Pony, then the short version endorsement is yes, you should absolutely run out and buy a copy as fast as your little legs can carry you. For a brief synopsis and a more in depth review, check below the break. This review will, as much as possible, strive to be spoiler-free. So fret not, and follow along!

    So, I'd imagine the first thing you're all wondering is: what is this story about? In brief, it follows the journey of a young girl with no name and a mysterious past who stumbles her way out of an enchanted forest and finds Pennyroyal Academy, the titular school wherein young girls and boys train to become Princesses and Knights to combat the principle evils of her era, namely witches and dragons. While inside the walls, she'll have a lot to learn about herself and other people, finding out about things like friendship, compassion, and her place in the world along the way.

    What I like the most about the novel is its honesty. Larson isn't trying to force laughs out of his audience by grabbing hold of the "camera" and giving his audience a coy wink or a nudge. It's not the sort of story that's full of self-referential wit and put downs, but instead a world of whimsy that dances gaily back and forth across the line of taking itself seriously and knowing when to be fun. There are a lot of genuinely fun and funny scenes as you read, and one and all they rise organically from the events of the narrative, and hardly ever at somebody's expense.

    In keeping with this, the characters themselves are refreshingly genuine and surprisingly deep. "Evie", as she eventually comes to be known, starts off as the very picture of a girl at the beginning of adolescence. She's shy, awkward, unsure of herself and generally seems out of place in her world. it's the sort of feeling a young audience can empathize with immediately. But the deeper we dig into her, the more her behaviors make sense and every triumph feels genuine as she grows into a more complete person alongside all of her fellow cadets. It's especially the characters that seem like they should be the shallowest that wind up being the most fascinating. Take Basil, for instance. Basil is the youngest son of an exasperated mother who gave up on ever having a daughter and instead shipped him off to become a Princess on his own. Not  a Prince, mind you, there's no vocabulary at the academy for that sort of thing. This is the sort of thing that feels like it might get played off for awkward laughs at his expense, but instead it's played straight up and he takes it very seriously. Even though the story never spends any hugely significant time focusing on him, we get to see inside him and touch something very genuine in a much needed lesson about our assumptions of gender roles and what being a "princess" actually means.

    M.A. Larson's background is of course in television writing, specifically for animation. It's a very different kind of writing than novel work, mostly working with very limited time frames and trying to set up hooks and stingers in time for commercial breaks, leading to very compartmentalized story frameworks. His experience in this kind of writing shines through in his first novel experience, both to his credit and his detriment. There are multiple points throughout the story, particularly in the beginning, where you can see a sense of feeling pressed for time. Major "bombshell" moments are dropped somewhat haphazardly on the reader where they could have stood more time to let percolate, and those decisions unfortunately intrude on the pacing and especially the reader's ability to learn about the world. But at the same time, Larson's sense of television-esque pacing sets him up for absolutely gorgeous endings to key chapters and plot shifts. Whenever anything momentous happens, it's almost always set up with aplomb and drops you off at a "commercial break" that just invites you to put the book down for a second (just a second, mind you) and say, "Damn."

    The prose itself is another back and forth sort of issue. Scene after scene is immersed in wonderful visual elements, bathing the reader in sensory bliss that does a wonderful job of drawing the reader's mind into the world of Pennyroyal. Sights and smells and touches are blended in concert to help create a living, breathing world that flows enjoyably from page to page, and the book's pacing is pleasant and engaging, if occasionally choppy. But every once in a while, he'll trip over his own word choice and suck the reader out of the moment with needlessly flashy or "purple" descriptions that seem more inclined toward impressing than giving a clear sense of scene. 'Vertiginous' cliffs and the like dot the wordscape of the novel, and even if they aren't incredibly common it's still very jarring to see these sorts of things crop up, especially in something published as an "Ages 10+" story. Still, these amount to very minor bumps on an otherwise very pleasant road. You'll never flip open to a page and cringe at a sentence or paragraph so heavy with overwrought language that it's starting to sweat. That's a promise.

    While reading I found it very difficult not to draw comparisons between Pennyroyal Academy and Harry Potter. Even if Pennyroyal's setting is decidedly less modern day, there are a lot of surface level similarities. A disadvantaged child entering a magic school and finding friends for the first time, prophecies and dark powers that terrify the countryside while still seeming oddly distant from within the walls of our previously mentioned magic academy. I could go on, but the thing is that I don't really find these comparisons fair. I think that Rowling and her world were an obvious well of inspiration for this novel, but hardly the only one at work here. The most critical thing of all is Larson's intense focus on using character and plot to tie themes together. As such, Pennyroyal Academy cares much more about how it makes you feel and think than about tying every arc together or explaining all of its mysteries. The novel ends on a reasonably satisfying note for the initial story arc but begs for a sequel (which is already in the works). Critically, the academy lacks a Dumbledore figure to swoop in and wrap up loose threads or answer questions. Evie's questions, and whatever ones we ask alongside  of her, will have to carry their own weight and find conclusions in their own time, leaving us wanting more.

    Wrapping things up, I want to talk a little bit about my absolute favorite aspect of Pennyroyal Academy: the way that it approaches and reaches its audience. When you're writing a story like this, especially when you're dealing with plot that revolves around empowering a helpless female character, it's very easy to fall into the trap of making the whole thing revolve around the concept of Girl Power and the many heavy handed lessons that tend to stem from that idea. But while this is a story about powerful girls, it's not a story about Girl Power. When a little girl tells you she wants to be a princess when she grows up, it's a complicated dream. She doesn't just want to sit inside a tower wearing sparkly dresses waiting for a prince to show up. She's probably got a very specific princess in mind, and that idea is going to shift from dream to dream. Because it's complicated, it deserves to not be painted with vague and sloppy brushstrokes. M.A. Larson doesn't disappoint. What's a Princess, really? Courageous. Compassionate. Kind. Disciplined. If an evil witch is about darkening the world in fear and cursing innocent people with awful magics, a Princess is about finding it in herself to care about others as much as herself, and looking for the person underneath the one you're looking at. She's a protector. She's powerful, but she's not a bully. That we can have cool action scenes without turning our idea of what a hero is into somebody who has the sickest fighting moves feels like having my cake and eating it. It's awesome, and for that feeling alone I'd recommend this story to anyone.

    So there we are, down to the brassiest of tacks. Do you want to pick this up? Well, let me ask you: do you like fantasy? Intrigue? Dragons? Can you cheer for a young girl as she grows up and finds her place in a strange world? You're here on this website. I think you can. Don't sit around thinking about it, go pick up a copy for yourself. It's not a perfect story, but at its brightest it far outshines its flaws. I promise you'll find it, ahem, "a crackin' good time."