I ought not have fretted. In PALACE OF STONE, Shannon Hale both surprised me with where she took Miri, Katar, Britta, Peder and all the others -- and yet, as soon as I started reading, it seemed there was no other story that could possibly have existed. It didn't feel like Shannon Hale chose a direction and decided that's what would happen to Miri; rather, it felt like Miri had dragged her along and made her write everything down, so it could be told properly.
At the end of Princess Academy, and again at the beginning of PALACE OF STONE, Miri notices how much bigger the world feels, and so, naturally enough, this story takes her and the other Mount Eskel girls to the big city, where they soon find themselves embroiled in a deep and growing political divide between the haves and the have-nots. More than that, the conflict focuses on whether simply being born royal, or born a peasant, is the determining factor in your worth. This echoes one of the themes of Princess Academy, where the Mount Eskel girls were dismissed as uneducated country bumpkins, until they more than proved their worth.
In this, and other, ways PALACE OF STONE follows naturally on from Princess Academy, both in the growth of the characters, and the logical results of their actions. It allows Miri to explore in a more thoughtful way her feelings about Peder, and for Britta to assert her place both as the queen to be, and as the prince's true beloved, without pretense.
And of course, the story is beautifully told, its tempo just right and the tension and resolution perfectly balanced. It is a pleasure to read, and will entrance both those who came to love Miri in Princess Academy, and those encountering her for the first time. Like Princess Academy, PALACE OF STONE could stand alone, although I recommend reading them in order, as the first adds its own resonance to the second. And there are times (particularly towards the end) when knowing about the magic the girls discovered in Princess Academy will make events in PALACE OF STONE more comprehensible.
The themes in both books, but perhaps even more so in PALACE OF STONE, are grand and important -- justice, revolution, the divine right of kingship, poverty and greed, ignorance, education and courage -- oh so many! Yet none of them are dealt with in a heavy-handed manner. One could read this story as a suspenseful romance and coming-of-age story, and be done. Yet older, or more thoughtful, readers will find much food for thought as they journey along with Miri, and perhaps wonder whether they might someday have the same strength of character, the same bravery and loyalty as Miri shows.
Complex, intriguing political drama -- with romance!