Abandoned at the Featherbed Inn as an infant, Aza looks nothing like her adoptive innkeeper family - tall, ungainly, with colourless skin, unseemly red lips and dull black hair, she was also blessed with the most beautiful voice in the village. In a country like Ayortha, that has raised singing to a high art and incorporated in in every aspect of life, this is no small thing. Aza has another gift - through an accidental outbreak of hiccups while cleaning, she has created a technique she calls 'illusing' where she can project her voice so it appears to come from wherever she chooses.
When a visiting Duchess's companion is unable to accompany her to the capital for the wedding of the King to his Kyrrian wife Ivi, Aza is chosen in her stead. Despite Aza's attempts at a low profile at the palace, she is chosen by the new queen to be her lady-in-waiting, over the King's preferred choice, of whom Ivi is jealous. When a freak accident renders the King unconscious shortly after the wedding, Queen Ivi rules in his place. Vain and with little awareness of how her actions are perceived, Ivi is unused to the significant emphasis singing has in Ayortha, and has a weak and tuneless voice. Discovering that Aza can illuse she blackmails the girl into providing her with a more spectacular voice. Ivi also institutes a series of changes that upset the country, from disbanding the council to banning Sings. Aza is a helpless witness, torn between loyalty to the family Ivi threatens and to her King, branded a collaborator and seen as a confidant, attracted to the Crown Prince and aware that the Queen intends to replace him as King should the still-unconscious ruler die.
Fairest is a really fresh and interesting twist on the Snow White tale, perhaps the most interesting I've seen in the genre. Levine has created a unique world, where all names begin and end with the same vowel (Prince Ijori, the cat Oochoo, singing master Ogusso), and the stereotypically beautiful heroine is replaced by one who is seen by others and herself as ugly. The characters ring with veracity, and the plot and character arcs kept me reading 'just one more chapter.'
The mirror only appears midway through the book but its affects are evident from early on, and the shadowy figure who serves little purpose in the traditional story has a far darker and more interesting role here.
I loved the little notes Levine inserts throughout the text, like Aza's intense dislike for apples - the fruit that ultimately almost brings about her death, and the commentary on beauty that threads through the novel. Aza has the opportunity to change her appearance but is cautious, a position that brings happy results - I particularly liked Ijori's comment that he was disappointed when she "became beautiful in a commonplace way" because he loved her grandeur and dignity, knowledge that transforms Aza's image of herself.
I possibly could have done without the tracts of song lyrics that are interspersed throughout the text, though the Song of Ayortha is key to understanding Ayortha's culture, and many of the songs were interesting. I have read most of Levine's other works, including the brilliant Ella Enchanted, and intend to reread them as well as explore those new to me. - Alex