Alissa, Princess of Arcadia by Jillian Ross, 1997.
Alissa, the only child of King Edmund of Arcadia, feels like her life has taken a turn for the worse since she turned ten years old. Before, she lived a basically care-free life, but now, her family has become more serious about her education and training as the future Queen of Arcadia. Her great-aunts are mainly in charge of her education now, and they find Alissa to be ill-mannered, impatient, and stubborn. In some ways, she is. Alissa is bored with her lessons in the standard school subjects and hates her “deportment” lessons, where she learns etiquette suited to the royal court. More than anything, she wants adventure and excitement.
To Alissa’s surprise, she meets a strange old man one evening while walking in the garden who promises her the adventure that she’s looking for. At first, Alissa doesn’t know what to think about this strange old man, Balin, who seems to know everything about her, even what she’s been thinking. He sets Alissa a “quest”, to solve a riddle to determine where to find him. After pondering it for awhile, Alissa realizes that the riddle says that Balin lives in the oldest tower of the castle, where no one ever goes anymore.
It turns out that Balin is a wizard. He’s lived in the tower for centuries and hardly ever leaves, so most people have forgotten that he’s there. He offers Alissa lessons in magic and the kind of quests that she’s been craving. He once taught Alissa’s father similar lessons, although he thinks that King Edmund has also forgotten that he exists. Alissa eager accepts the offer of magic lessons.
At first, the only other person who knows about Alissa’s lessons with Balin is Lia, a servant of one of Alissa’s great-aunts. Lia had been about to run away from her position as servant because she didn’t think that she was very good at her job, but Alissa caught her the night when she was going to find Balin in his tower. The two of them became friends, and Alissa makes Lia her lady-in-waiting. Alissa enjoys having someone her age to share her secrets and adventures. Her great-aunts disapprove of her choice of lady-in-waiting, but Alissa’s father appreciates Lia because she sees the better side of Alissa, her bravery and kindness, and somewhat helps Alissa’s impatience because Lia is a more patient, cautious person.
When Alissa first begins her lessons with Balin, she thinks that studying magic is turning out to be as boring as her other lessons. Balin makes her do little chores, like dusting things in his tower, and he has her read books and memorize words. Alissa is impatient to get on with the exciting magic, but Balin impresses on her that she needs to start out slowly and to recognize that magic is not the solution to all things.
Meanwhile, Alissa’s father is preparing to hold a banquet to celebrate a new alliance with a neighboring kingdom. Now that Alissa is old enough to participate in such banquets, she learns that she must not only attend the banquet but be the dinner partner of the invited king, who she has heard is a stern man who is a stickler for proper manners. Alissa is terrified that she will make a mistake during the banquet, anger the king, and ruin everything.
Her fears grow worse when Balin tells her that he has seen impending disaster in his crystal ball and a threat to the alliance. Alissa begs him to tell her more, but he says that something is preventing his magic from seeing more. All he has to offer Alissa are a few vague hints which take the form of another riddle.
Balin believes that Alissa is the only one who can solve the riddle, stop the danger, and save the alliance, but Alissa doubts herself. She’s still afraid that she isn’t up to the task and will ruin everything, and she wishes that Balin would give her some magic spell to prevent her from doing anything wrong. However, the best weapons Alissa has are the ones she already possesses: her wits, her desire to work hard for what she wants to achieve, and the new patience that she is just starting to learn.
One of the things that I liked about the story was that the visiting king, for all of his sternness and demanding nature with others, is surprisingly understanding with Alissa. Some adults still remember what it was like to be young and awkward and impatient to grow up.
This book does not have extra information or activities in the back, as other books in the Stardust Classics series do.