Mount Eskel is an impoverished territory–not even a district–in the kingdom of Danland. The mountain’s sole claim to respect is the fact that it’s the kingdom’s only source of linder, a stone which resembles our world’s marble and which is used in much the same way. The linder quarries are the sole source of income for the villagers living on the mountain, though those too old, young or weak to work in the quarries stay home to raise goats, chickens and rabbits, and scrabble out a few poor garden plants in order to supplement the foodstuffs purchased from the traders who come once a year to trade for linder.
One day, a messenger arrives to inform the community of miners on the mountaintop of a prophecy which affects them: the king’s priests have foretold that the prince’s bride may be found on Mount Eskel…but seeing as how they’re all uncultured illiterate peasants, the court has arranged for all the eligible daughters–those between 13 and 18–to attend an academy set up especially for them. The tutor starts them with the basics of reading and ciphering, but quickly moves on to more advanced subjects–Danlander history, Commerce, Geography, Kings and Queens–and those necessary for ladies of the court: Diplomacy, Conversation, and Poise.
The girls learn a great deal, though it is not necessarily what Tutor Olana intended or what they expected. They learn how to work together (no mean girls by the end of the story!) in the face of pressure to conform and against someone who disdains you. “Commerce” is another subject, during which the girls learn the true price that linder garners in the lowlands and therefore just how badly the villagers are getting rooked by the traders. They work through Diplomacy and Poise, which combine to teach the girls how to negotiate with those traders to get a fairer price for their labors…and therefore render the village better able to purchase necessary supplies. (Miri negotiates, equally successfully, with Tutor Olana upon their return to school to allow them to resume their previous status as students and “bride candidates”.) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they also come to realize that being married to the prince isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This does end with a mild twist ending, though a standard fairy tale trope: the prince’s one true love is indeed among the village girls, but as is the way of all proper prophecies, she was not one of the village girls. (Yes, that girl.) All it took was the realization that speaking up for yourself is the best way to bring the story to a satisfactory end for most involved. (Life isn’t perfect.)
For those of us who prefer the sort of fairy tale fantasy in which character, education, bravery and athleticism are instilled in, or are considered important in our female protagonists: bear with the story. It doesn’t get off to a promising start: training girls to become simpering dolls to be paraded in front of a prince who hasn’t the gumption to speak up for himself? (shudders) Trust me. Keep reading. I don’t promise you’ll like the book, but the girls in the school have some very important epiphanies as the story unfolds. More importantly, the ending doesn’t match the beginning: while in the beginning, the the message seems to be ‘marriage to the prince will make girls happy’, in the end, this is not inverted exactly, but rather the more appropriate message ‘marriage to your one true love will make you happy, but shoehorning yourself into an unsuitable role will never bring fulfillment.” Something like that, anyway.