In the world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, Fairytales can quite literally come true- but that isn't necessarily a good thing. Princess Rosamund is the daughter of a good King and his former dairymaid wife. But when her mother dies, the Traditions direct that her father, King Thurman, must remarry. And whoever he marries will be her evil stepmother, trying to get her killed so that her own children (if she has any) can be heir to the Kingdom, or that any children she bears to Thurman will be heirs in Rosamund's place.
The only person who can stop the chaos the traditions will cause is the Godmother of Eltaria, the literal Half-Fairy Godmother Lily. Lily looks over the Kingdom of Eltaria, a full-time task in and of itself, because Eltaria is small, but very rich. And it's surrounded by five other nations who crave its riches, and won't stop until they have them. So as soon as his queen is buried, Thurman is surrounded by dark sorceresses who want him and his kingdom, and the only way Lily can think of to save him and his Kingdom is to appear to be a Dark Sorceress herself- for as long as she looks and acts the part, she doesn't actually have to hurt Rosamund.
But something goes awry with her plan, for not long after Lily "marries" her father. Rosamund is chased away from the castle by the Royal Huntsman, who she fears is seeking to kill her with his hounds. Jumping on one of the Black horses which are all that are left in the stable now that her stepmother the Queen is in power, Rosamund rides desperately into the forest, trying to save her life. Instead, she is knocked from her horse and tumbles into the bushes, and the hounds, tracking the horse, pass her by.
From there, she stumbles on a pack of dwarves and begs for their aid. Normally, the dwarves would be the kind and helpful sort, who would protect and look after her, keeping her safe from her "stepmother", but instead, the dwarves are the ugly and gross sort, who care nothing about her, only liking that she is now their slave for as long as they wish to shelter her. As Lily desperately searches for her with the help of her mirror servant, she is forced into being a totally demeaning maid and cook to the dwarves- not brutalized, but something like being the lowest slavey in the place, forced to cook, clean and mend the clothes of all the dwarves while they care for nothing but mining.
But even as Rosamund despairs over her fate, Lily is working to rescue her, and she uses the traditions themselves to do it. Making Rosamund fall asleep so that she appears dead, her captors throw her body into a pit in the forest. From there, her brownies rescue the body and place it on a plinth so that Rosamund can be awoken by the Grandmother's spell. But once her body is there, Rosamund attracts the attention of two wandering Princes, Siegfried Von Drachenthal, a prince from the far north who is related to the Gods of his land, and Leopold, a Prince ejected from his kingdom for being more popular than his brother who was to inherit the throne.
Siegfried is young, and a barbarian, but very accomplished, having already slain two Dragons and drunk some of their blood, which allows him to understand not only the language of birds, but of all animals. However, there is a doom lying upon him- that he will waken a maiden in armor, lying surrounded about by fire that burns, and when he kisses the maiden to awaken her, he will take her to wife and will bring DOOM to his homeland. This didn't sound at all good to Siegfried, so he decided to leave, especially as all the warrior maidens thereabouts were either his sisters or his aunts. However, he seems to find such maidens wherever he goes and stays for a while, so he's had to keep moving rather than stay and settle down.
When he and Leopold catch sight of Rosamund, each wants to kiss her and wake her up, for very different reasons. However, the Godmother awakens her before either Prince can, and Leopold wins the fight to get there first, and gets a hard kick in a very sensitive spot for his troubles. However, Lily thinks that perhaps she can use them in a different way, and takes them back to the palace with her and Rosamund.
Shortly after bringing Rosamund back to the palace, King Thurman dies, leaving Rosamund heir to the Kingdom. Rosamund needs a husband if she hopes to be able to keep her Kingdom free, and she needs to be able to find a way to keep the other Kingdoms around from conquering Eltaria. But how? Finally, she comes up with an answer- hold a competition for Rosamund's hand- make sure he has the sort of criteria that make for a strong, but kind, leader and set him contests to make him prove his worth. And she has to do it fast, if she wants to save Eltaria from being attacked by the nations around it.
Siegfried, wanting Rosamund for her beauty and herself (not to mention to escape the DOOM laid on him by his mother and his homeland) determines to try and win Rosamund for himself. But, at least until the endgame, he's willing to ally with and work with Leopold to overcome the other Princes and adventurers to try and win the contest. But if they thought that sheer martial prowess would work to win them the Prize, they are sorely mistaken. And one Prince, a man named Desmond, seems poised to win the whole thing. But can Siegfried and Leopold prevent him from making off with the greatest prize of all- Rosamund, when he realizes that her affections are already given elsewhere? And what will Siegfried do about the woman who is fated to be his DOOM when he is already in love with Rosamund?
I love the Five Hundred Kingdoms books, and I have loved every one of the series so far. Though many of the stories re-introduce old characters from the last book, this one actually does that for two books, or at least gives them mention. The first, of course, is the Godmother Elena, and the second is Gina, a fighting woman who gave up her life as a human to become a dragon. Both receive mention in this book, but don't actually show up. which I found to be refreshing and a bit sad in equal measure. Sad first, because as characters I've read about in the past, readers like me want to see how they are doing. Refreshing, because in the end, I feel they might have taken away from the intensity of this story.
This is one of the first stories to mix up two different stories in one book. There is Rosamund, who is the literal "Sleeping Beauty" of the title, at least for a time. and the second is Siegfried, who is the same Siegfried of the Niebelungenlied, Volslung Saga, Ring Cycle, or what have you. It was nice to see the intersection of the two stories (and perhaps reveal a new area of the Kingdoms where the stories are very different- based on Norse myths rather than the generalized "European myths" that the Five Hundred Kingdoms are based on). Siegfried says his land doesn't have Godmothers, and the Gods (or what passes for Gods) in his land have intermarried the people there and meddle as much as the Gods do in the Ring Cycle generally, so this book definitely expands the scope of the Kingdoms, although I and other readers have no idea how the Kingdoms are laid out or if there are actually 500 of them.
I especially loved the ending to this book, as Rosamund, Siegfried, Leopold and his new Bride Brunnhilde mess with the plans of the Gods from his land. It was amusing to see the reaction of Brunnhilde as she berates the Gods for starting the whole of the situation in the first place. I also loved the action in the book, and the love story between Siegfried and Rosamund. Out of all her suitors, he's the only one who gives her a really practical gift (the ability and training to defend herself), and comes up with a really good plan to defend the Kingdom.
The whole story of the contest between the suitors was funny and interesting to read. Some of the scenes made me laugh aloud as I was imagining the chaos going on in them. Mercedes Lackey definitely has the ability to make what you are reading funny and amusing without breaking the mood of an otherwise serious story, and her characters are always well-drawn and interesting, even here, where they are basically inflated stereotypes drawn from Fairytales. Reading this is amusing and enthralling, keeping you in the story right up until the end. Highly recommended.