It’s hard to think of a stranger combo than robots and princesses. But this is exactly what author Todd Matthy and illustrator Nicolas Chapuis have in mind for their new sci-fi-meets-fantasy series. And it works.
Robots Versus Princesses follows the adventures of Princess Zara as she escapes her humdrum palace life in search of a dragon in the forest wilds. Her path soon crosses with a robot known as Wheeler, who has defected from an oppressive and militaristic regime. The unlikely pair soon realize each has what the other needs, and their meeting seems like a fortuitous twist of fate until it becomes part of a bigger power struggle between robots and the five kingdoms.
Readers will be immediately drawn to Wheeler, a sentient robot who is as likeable as he is rebellious. As he leaves the evil Tyrannis and his army of Decimators, who are engaged in an epic battle for domination with the kind-hearted Ultimus and his league of Centurions, Wheeler’s quest allows him to trade his servitude for freedom and choice.
Ironically, the thing this robot abhors most is his “robotic” existence of repetition and reprimand. And it is this sense of irony and humor that keeps Matthy’s fairytale mashup fresh. For example, after an agitated Wheeler is questioned by the Centurions, he is commanded to “watch your vocal processor.” I am assuming this is a rough equivalent to “watch your tone.”
Princess Zara also offers a spark in an otherwise dull and predictable fairytale world of domesticated damsels trying to snag a prince. Her preference for daring and dragons shakes up Harmonia, the capitol city where she and the other princesses are preparing for a concert to showcase their unique vocal talents.
While the others are excited to show off their marriage-ready skills like tidying, good manners, and sewing; Zara is more interested in exploring the world around her. Perhaps in a nod to other well-known tales, her adventures parallel similar quest-driven stories like The Little Mermaid. She is an Ariel without the fins, motivated by chasing after her own dreams instead of some hunky prince.
Unfortunately, her fellow princesses within the story lack distinct points of view. I didn’t get to know them as individuals, and it was admittedly hard to tell them apart. They do get points for their collective support of Zara’s mission, and their willingness to throw caution to the wind and engage in some very unladylike behavior.
Thematically, gender plays an important role. Initially, the story appears to be a run-of-the-mill fairytale in which traditional gender roles confine females to the domestic sphere. However, this stale and out-of-date approach is soon turned on its head as Zara leaves behind the confining city to enter the unpredictable and wild forest. This sets the characters on an entirely different path that leaves no room for sewing needles and cumbersome corsets.
There are no damsels in distress or ivory towers here, but warriors whose actions will either save the day or lead to big problems for humankind. Refreshingly absent are the square-jawed, broad-shouldered “Prince Charmings” to the rescue. In fact, the only assistance our leading ladies receive is from the Centurions, who also want to defeat the power-hungry Decimators. (On a side note, it would appear that all robots are programmed to be male).
I commend Matthy for creating a strong group of women, who rely on one another to take on the world through teamwork and support. It’s all about uniting, not dividing females, in order to break free from oppressive social hierarchies in favor of personal empowerment and independence. Theirs will not be lives of subservience defined by relationships to men.
This theme of liberation also extends to Wheeler. One of my favorite parts of the story occurs when he learns to fly in his new form. Without giving too much away, Zara’s singing produces magical changes in those that hear it. As Wheeler quite literally leaves the world behind him, or in this case below him, it is a very visceral representation of his new found freedom. He forges his own path, defying gravity and escaping the shackles of servitude to an authoritative and punitive society.
Complementing the action-packed story are the vivid illustrations. Rendered in watercolor, Chapuis uses pastel shades to reflect the princess/fantasy storyline while bold colors, jagged lines, and dark shading represent the robot/sci-fi world. This visual juxtaposition is especially helpful since the story often switches points of view without clear transitions.
Somewhat harder to follow are the speech bubbles, which make it difficult to discern who is speaking and when. Action sequences also tend to be somewhat murky because it is tricky to keep track of who is doing what in the busier scenes.
Overall, the book is an
entertaining and fast-paced read that should appeal to the lower grades. The princesses resemble Disney characters while the robots look like Transformers. In fact, these automatons even have the names to match (Ultimus sure sounds a lot like Optimus Prime).
Auditory elements such as music/song, ambient forest sounds, and noisy robots also make this book a fun one to read out loud. They also would lend themselves well to other mediums like film or audiobooks. As it stands, readers can look forward to a sequel in graphic novel form as the ending definitely sets the stage for the next adventure.
Robots Versus Princesses
By Todd Matthy
Art by Nicolas Chapuis
Publisher Age Rating: All ages
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)