This was a truly great fairy-tale which did precisely what I always advocate - take the road less traveled. There's nothing worse than a cookie-cutter novel which tells you the same story and in the same way you already heard it a thousand times before. Kelly Burnhill gets this.
In a mirror world, which was a bit annoying because it wasn't explained until the end of the story, lives Princess Violet, who is not beautiful - not at a shallow skin depth anyway, but who is gorgeous inside, with her mom and dad. She's a tomboy and a tear-away, and feels not quite like a 'real' princess because she's been shamed by all those fairy-tales which have a princess who is typically defined to skin-depth and has nothing else to offer but her heart to whichever wandering jackass claims it. Yes, Disney, I'm looking at you! Although even Disney seems to be getting the message of late.
When Violet and her buddy Demetrius discover a sinister painting hidden in the depths of the castle, and her mom dies shortly after yet another stillborn baby, while her dad is off hunting dragons, things start going south badly. The kingdom is suddenly at war, and The Nybbas in the painting promises Violet she can be beautiful and have everything she wants if only she will listen to him. Dad returns with the dragon he captured for studying, but everything seems to be falling irreparably apart!
The story did start dragging a bit in the last third. At over four hundred pages, it was about 25% too long, and should have been edited better, but that aside, this was an awesome story and I fully recommend it. The only real problem I had was with Iacopo Bruno's illustrations, which once again bore little relationship to the text of the story.
How an artist can be so blind and disrespectful to an author, or how an author can be so uncritical is a mystery. Maybe she had no choice and was saddled with this by the publisher. I don't know, but if that was the case then the question becomes that of how a publisher can be so utterly clueless! This kind of complete disconnect is why I flatly refuse to go with Big Publishing™.
Let me detail a few of the problems with the illustrations. We're quite clearly told that Violet has mismatched eyes, not just in that one is a different color to the other, but that her eyes are literally different sizes. She also has wiry hair and bad skin. None of this is visible in any of the illustrations. She looks ultra cute in all of them with fine hair, great skin and tediously ordinary eyes!
After Violet is transformed, she's essentially exactly thew same as she was before the transformation! So where is the contrast? There was none. Yes, her hair is longer, but the artist even screwed that up. The author makes it quite clear in the text that Violet's feet have shrunk and her hair grown to Rapunzel proportions. Not a single one of the illustrations shows these changes. To me, this means the artist is quite simply stupid or incompetent. I'm sorry, but what other conclusion is there? That he's a lousy coward maybe, and doesn't have the courage to illustrate this the way the author wrote it, thereby undermining the very message the author is trying to send? Or did the author chicken out? There really is no excuse for sabotaging the writing like this and whoever is responsible should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
On a related topic, there was one part of the text where Violet and Demetrius crawled through a small gap in a wall. The text makes it quite clear that they're reduced to crawling, yet the illustration shows them walking through the gap like it's a regular doorway! In another instance, the text says a door handle made a mark in the plaster when it was thrown open angrily, but illustration shows the door with rope handles! Rope is hardly likely to make a mark in the plaster! So I score a zero for the illustrations.
Even the map which is included inside the front and back covers makes little sense, not only in relation to the story, but also with regard to the map itself. I mean why does a trade route not visit any cities, for example?! Given this, why even mark it when it has nothing to do with the story?
There were writing issues, too. I mean, did this castle really have plaster for the door handle not to make a mark in? Such a thing is highly doubtful given the context of the story and the state of the castle in general, but it's a relatively minor issue. More problematic is a description of a horse being "So black he was nearly blue." Excuse me? So dark blue he was nearly black makes sense, but it's idiotic to put it this way.
Also problematic is that at one point we're told that the king has only two days to get ready for a war, and then nothing happens, but later, there is a bustle of activity aimed at this very readiness, none of which had a remote chance of being completed in two days! And yeah, all the "my loves" and "darlings', especially those from the story-teller, were frankly creepy.
So yes, there were some writing issues that the author really needed to have nailed down. These are somewhat less important in children's stories since they tend to be less exacting, but some children might notice things like that. Do such children deserve less because they're children? Not in my books!
That said, I really liked this novel and consider it a very worthy read, so I recommend it to adults and children alike, and particularly to writers who want to break the mold, as this author has done so definitively here.