by Catriona Mills

The Little Princes: Chapter One

Posted 10 September 2009 in by Catriona

This, as promised, is the first chapter of the novel. Be gentle (but critical) with it: it’s only a baby. And, yes, the title is horrible, but it does as a working title.

1 In Which the King and Queen of the Tiny, Deep Kingdom are Introduced

This is the story of two little princes from a tiny kingdom at the far edge of the world, who left one day on an adventure.

The kingdom was at the bottom of a valley so deep that some people said it was actually under the ground.

But the queen, who was a sensible woman, pointed out that she could see the sky provided she stood in the very middle of the kingdom (which was also the middle of her garden) and tipped her head back as far as she could.

Tall mountains surrounded the valley. They were so tall that, rather than having snow on their peaks, they had a thick white belt of snow around their middles. Even the snow found it too cold on the tops of these mountains, which were just bare, grey rock.

The queen admitted that living in such a deep valley meant that her kingdom was cold, and dark, and damp. But, she said, this meant that it was a lovely place to grow mushrooms, and she and the king did like fried mushrooms on their toast on Sunday mornings.

(The king would have eaten fried mushrooms on his toast every day, but somehow he could never manage more than marmalade on a Monday morning, when he had all the business of the kingdom to worry about and another five days before the next weekend. The queen told him that most kings and queens—kings and queens who ruled big kingdoms, not tiny, deep kingdoms—even had to work on the weekends. But the king didn’t believe her.)

The king and queen’s castle was the smallest castle they had ever seen. They’d bought the kingdom when they were very young and newly married. The king’s family had always been poor, but he’d longed to be a king since he’d been a young child. The king’s parents saved up enough money to send him to the right preparatory schools and then to the university that offered the best degree in kingship, and he’d eventually graduated as a newly anointed king.

The universities hadn’t been offering degrees in kingship and queenship for long. They’d started them to exploit what they called “a gap in the market,” and then they’d had to explain to everyone what they’d meant by that: where some of the old-style kings didn’t have children to carry on the royal line, they argued, citizens could have a king who, without being technically royal, was highly trained in kingship.

And, they added, anyone—provided they could afford the rather steep fees—could become a king. (“Even if they’re a woman!” an early advertisement added, until someone convinced them that that was a little tactless.)

And it worked.

But it worked a little too well for the old kings’ liking.

The new kings might not have been of royal blood, but they were very good at their jobs. They were never to be found carousing all night, or off hunting while their citizens were waiting to petition them.

Suddenly, people whose kings didn’t have a degree began to complain. Why, they asked each other, should they have to wait hours to see a king who would only come storming into the hall, surrounded by panting hounds, and then demand ale, when their neighbours had a polite, quietly spoken king with neat handwriting and a diploma on the wall?

The old kings were appalled. They sent their sons and daughters off to the universities to collect degrees, thinking this would calm the citizens down.

But the citizens didn’t want just any king with a degree. The universities has advertised the degree widely, telling everyone that this was the way for them to get the best possible king—and that’s what the citizens wanted.

So when the kings’ sons and daughters came home with their degrees (having done as little work as possible, thinking to inherit the kingdom anyway), they’d found themselves confronting polite, quietly spoken young kings, who’d answered the citizens’ advertisements and already hung their own diplomas in the Great Hall.

And there was nothing that the old kings could do. The universities had simply thought to make a little money, but—with their shiny advertisements and their promises that their kings would listen to any problem—they’d started a revolution that changed kingship across the world.

In some kingdoms, the hereditary kings hung on, the ones who were too young to need to name an heir and too established to bother getting their degrees. But their citizens didn’t mind: they knew that one day they’d be able to advertise for their own accredited king, and they were willing to wait.

The king of the tiny, deep kingdom had found that his troubles started when he left university.

The university was now turning out more kings every year than there were kingdoms in the whole world. The university forbade their graduates from conquering existing kingdoms by force. Any king who started a war with one of their fellow graduates would be stripped of their official university crown (the one with the five golden points) and forbidden to mention the university in any official letters. This was a serious threat: no one wanted to be ruled by a king who didn’t have a degree in kingship.

In the absence of the most traditional method of winning a kingdom, the dozens of kings who graduated each year were forced to find new ways to rule. So new kings were forming little coalitions that allowed six kings to rule one kingdom, each ruling for one day a week and taking turns on Sundays.

(Despite the university’s policies about fighting, vicious arguments took place between new kings about who would be third king and who would have to settle for being fourth or fifth king. But as long as there wasn’t an official declaration of war, the university pretended not to know about these little squabbles. They made most of their money from the kingship programme. Each year, they printed dozens of shiny badges and garish posters with slogans like “Kingship Doesn’t Need Kinship!” and “Want to Fly High? Give Kingship a Try!” They didn’t want to discourage people from enrolling at their university.)

But joining a coalition cost a great deal, and this king was very poor. Six months after he graduated, he was still living in the small attic room he’d rented when he started at the university (where he paid his rent by performing small chores around the house, and helping his landlady carry her groceries home every Friday) and he still only owned one pair of trousers. He could never have afforded to join one of the big, prosperous kingdoms.

But he did have one advantage over his classmates: he had the queen. Unlike the king, the queen hadn’t always known what she wanted to do for a living: even when she was studying queenship at university, she thought she might like to be a gardener. (The queen’s mother had wanted her to study to be a king, but the queen had insisted on enrolling in the queen course, instead. It was more work, but she didn’t have to spend as much time signing papers, so the queen thought it was worth it.) She was delighted when she met the king, because (quite apart from loving him just for himself) she realised that he was so poor she wouldn’t have to choose: she would have to be both queen and gardener.

It was the queen who suggested they look for a kingdom so small that other, more ambitious kings would never want it.

The real-estate agent who sold the kingdom to the king and queen had told them that the castle wasn’t really a castle.

“Really,” said the real-estate agent, “we’d have to call it a cottage. Look, there’s an herb garden. And roses around the door. And it only has three bedrooms. And there’s a pig in the garden.”

But the king said, “No.” He said it firmly. The king liked to say things firmly, because he wasn’t always confident that what he had to say was important.

“No,” said the king. “If I am living here, then it must be a castle. After all, am I not a king?” (The king hadn’t been a king for very long, so he didn’t sound as sure about this as he would have liked.)

And the real-estate agent looked around the tiny kingdom. It had taken him three days to get there, following a trail over the mountains. (He worked in a cosy office in a city by the sea, where he could walk on the beach and feed the seagulls on days when he didn’t have to sell houses.)

He looked up at the mountains.

He stood in the garden—next to the pig, who was optimistically digging for potatoes in the strawberry patch—and he tipped his head back as far as he could, so he could see the sky.

And he looked at the king, who was wearing his graduation crown, the one with the five golden points.

(The queen was wearing the trousers she wore when she was gardening, because she knew they’d have to clean out the castle before they could live in it. But then the queen was much more sensible than the king.)

And the real-estate agent agreed that the king was a king and the cottage was a castle. And when he’d sold them the castle, he went back to his seaside city, where he shared a packet of fish and chips with the seagulls, and thought that at least here he didn’t have to stand in the middle of the garden and tip his head back as far as he could to see the sky.

Share your thoughts [13]

1

Kirsty wrote at Sep 10, 09:09 AM

Well, I found it quite charming. I especially liked the idea of the characters sitting and tipping their heads back to see the sky, and the pig snuffling in the strawberry patch for potatoes. I could picture your characters and their setting very clearly.

I suppose if I found anything to be critical about then it would be the hint of cynicism about the university. It isn’t that I didn’t appreciate the idea of a university churning out kingships to make money, but I just wondered if it quite fitted here? It pulled me away from the exposition of the characters and their circumstances and made me nod cynically.

That said, the other thread of social commentary, if you will, about the kings and queens who believed they would inherit their kingdoms without any work, was more successful to my mind. Perhaps because I could picture them returning home and getting something of a shock?

2

Tim wrote at Sep 10, 12:58 PM

Lovely!

I’ll give some more specific thoughts later, but the thing that most strikes me is that this reads as the story of the king and queen, rather than of the two princes. I can see why you’d do that, but consider either giving the princes more room at the start (maybe this could be chapter 2 instead?) or having an explanatory sentence or two (along the lines of ‘But first you have to understand what they were leaving’ or ‘The story starts with their parents’).

My second concern is that you have a bit too much material about the universities (particularly the parenthetical paragraph, which digresses from a digression, so to speak.)

Thirdly, a lot of the paragraphs begin with ‘But’ or ‘And’. Again, I can imagine stylistic reasons for this, but it’s something you might want to watch out for.

That said, the piece has a clear, straightforward style without, I think, being condescending. It reminds me of Joan Aiken and Eva Ibbotson. Most importantly, it makes me want to read more of the story.

(Is that the sort of feedback you are after?)

3

Catriona wrote at Sep 10, 01:52 PM

Kirsty, I thought when I was writing it that the university material was a little cynical. (I suppose I am being a little cynical about university life at the moment.)

For plot purposes, I need to keep in the material about the universities just looking to attract people to a new degree programme and incidentally creating a social revolution—the disjunction between the new kings and the old kings is an important plot point later in the narrative.

But I could probably do that and still be whimsical rather than cynical. This chapter (and the next chapter: I wrote those two back to back) have a whimsical feel (I think) that I suspect has fallen out in the latter half, and which I want to build back in.

On a similar note, Tim, I can see your point about the material on the universities being too much at this point. Part of that is a consequence of writing much of that material in one block, and then dumping the entire block in that section. And part of it does work there, to contextualise the king and queen’s position and give some concreteness to the idea that they have a kingdom barely bigger than their garden. But I think you’re spot on about it being too much: I can think of at least two points later in the narrative where some of that material can work as exposition (hopefully without being too “As you know, Bob”), which I think will also strengthen those other sections.

I did notice the “ands” and “buts,” too. I could see myself doing it, and there were several more that I stripped out. It’s to do, I think, with how I’m writing this, which is very freeform. (I also have a bit of a tic about starting sentences with co-ordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs, especially “however”: my sister noticed it in my Ph.D., as well.)

I’ll strip them out, but not until I have my plot and characters in place. (One of the princes is shaping nicely. One is a much weaker character: he needs work.)

I thrilled, though, that you don’t think it’s condescending. Not being condescending was one thing I was really aiming at: I was thinking L. Frank Baum and Diana Wynne Jones (I wish) rather than the two you mentioned, but I’m so pleased that came across.

And, yes: thank you both for exactly the sort of criticism I’m looking for at this stage.

If you want to be more specific, Tim, please go ahead!

4

Drew wrote at Sep 11, 07:28 AM

I loved it too Treen, it had me laughing and wanting to read more. I agree with everything above, I would ask, how old are your nephews? I get the feeling that the audience age shifts a little when the university material begins, that at first you are at the say, A.A. Milne level (probably higher), then suddenly at the Prachet level – not that I’ve ever read any Terry Prachet so that might be a bad analogy. But it’s great, I want more.

5

Catriona wrote at Sep 11, 07:59 AM

Thanks, Drew!

The age question is part of my problem with the work at the moment. It’s far too advanced for my nephews, who are three and five. I’m hoping their mother will be able to read it to them at some point, though.

Once the narrative started developing past the first couple of chapters (which came into my head—if that doesn’t sound too pretentious—almost fully formed, and haven’t changed much since then), I was thinking a 7-9 age group.

I’m still thinking that, but I’m painfully aware that, in some spots, it’s probably too advanced for that age group.

It’s also why I’ve left my characters’ ages unspecified, which I know I can’t continue to get away with. The younger prince, Hugo, reads as a child, I think. The elder prince, Jacob, is too nebulous a character for you to pin any age on him. He’s my big failure, at this point.

But there’s a third character, who comes into the narrative in about six chapters’ time: Mae. She’s the most successful and independent of the characters, I think (and by independent, I mean that she’s developing organically and that her voice is the most consistent of any I’ve written) and I positioned her as slightly younger than Jacob.

But Nick thinks she reads like a teenager, so I might have misjudged her.

It’s odd: I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but the parts that are proving tricky are not the parts I thought I’d have a problem with.

6

Nick wrote at Sep 11, 08:17 AM

Drew, you must read Pratchett: I’d wager you’d love him to death or have extremely interesting and thought-provoking problems with him.

I wonder if the hint of cynicism is easier to detect for a reader more familiar with universities!

I think as Catriona says the infodump will work out better when it’s spread out in the rest of the story, but on the other hand I’m a sucker for exposition about politics in fantasy settings. A version of The West Wing set in Middle Earth would just about be perfect reading (you get hints of that kind of thing in Steven Brust, sometimes).

7

Nick wrote at Sep 11, 08:28 AM

Furthermore, I think the Pratchett analogy is a very good one; the text in places has very much the feeling of a Pratchett juvenile (particularly the Tiffany Aching books: Mae, who appears later, is self-possessed very much in the manner of a young Pratchett heroine), even though Catriona hasn’t read any of the juveniles. I think they’re working through many of the same influences.

8

Nick wrote at Sep 11, 08:34 AM

I think the age targeting will become a little clearer when the two boys are properly introduced in the narrative. They’re both reactive and observe the events that unfold, which allows Catriona to deliver a younger and a slightly older point-of-view, which might broaden the age range of the audience. We both think the older brother is a little too inconsistent in that he starts out initiating action and then becomes too reactive.

9

Catriona wrote at Sep 11, 08:44 AM

I think part of the problem is that I like exposition, as well. I like world-building. I just need to find a way that makes the world-building work within the narrative, rather than just, as Nick so elegantly and tactfully puts it, info-dumping.

I can exploit my third-person narrator to do that, but it would be more assured to allow some of the exposition to fall from characters in conversation. Since the princes themselves are so isolated in the tiny, deep valley, I think I can do that (carefully, very carefully) without falling into “As you know, Bob” territory.

Nick’s point about the princes being too reactive is a good one, too. It seems to me (an unbiased bystander) that it makes sense for Hugo to be somewhat reactive, especially in the early stages, since he’s the younger brother (and for reasons that I won’t go into here). But Jacob needs work.

I hope I’m not coming across as defensive here (or, alternatively, too fond of the sound of my own voice, though I am that). I’m really appreciating all the feedback I’m getting; it’s all fabulous, and it’s helping me think through the shape of the story. But I’m also enjoying talking about this—hence the obsessive posting.

10

Matthew Smith wrote at Sep 11, 09:19 AM

This is great Catriona. It looks like this book is going to be pretty fun. On the university issue, I think there’s enough ideas there to put it in it’s own chapter, I’ve seen that kind of thing used as a delaying tactic (like in The Princess Bride) while the reader suffers waiting to know how the hero avoids certain death. Also, I wonder if the bit about the Real-Estate agent moves too fast. Why don’t you set the real-estate agent bit as the opening scene and have them walking into the valley as the chapter opens? That way you can have the mushrooms bit as dialog and they can inspect the valley and discuss its features.

11

Catriona wrote at Sep 11, 09:33 AM

That’s an interesting idea, Matt. I know a couple of people have expressed reservations about the attention given to the real-estate agent’s POV, and one in particular strongly objected to ending the chapter with a minor character’s POV.

The same person also suggested that there should be dialogue early in the chapter, because she thought the dialogue worked well, so this might answer both of those question.

Hmm. Something else to think about there, though it would mean coming up with a new way of ending the chapter. As it stands, I think the ending of this chapter and the ending of the next chapter are slightly melancholic, and I like that.

So much to think about!

12

Celia wrote at Sep 13, 09:53 AM

You seem to have plenty of detailed feedback :-) I loved the whimsical humour of this, it’s lovely to read.

13

Catriona wrote at Sep 13, 10:18 AM

Thank you, Celia! I’m hoping I can keep the whimsy up through the entire narrative: I want to write something that doesn’t unexpectedly hurt the readers, if you know what I mean.

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