How Zoe Made Her Dreams (Mostly) Come True, by Sarah Strohmeyer (Balzer+Bray, 2013)

In this lively teen comedy, the Devil turns in her Prada for a crown and a magic mirror.

It was supposed to be the summer of awesomeness, the opportunity of a lifetime.  Zoe Kiefer and her cousin Jess have been selected as summer interns for Fairytale Kingdom, a New Jersey theme park.  As cast members, they’ll presumably get to play the role of princesses, flirt with their male opposite numbers, promote a certain Wow! spirit, and maybe have a shot at winning the Dream and Do grant, a prize consisting of $25,000 and a shot at moving up in the corporation.

Only, Jess is assigned to play Red Riding Hood #2, instead of the Cinderella she was born to portray. And Zoe isn’t even a cast member.  She’s been appointed lady-in-waiting to the Queen, the woman who runs the kingdom with a firm, fickle, unwavering, unforgiving hand. Now Zoe’s on call 24/7, required to follow every rule to the letter, forced to walk the Queen’s obnoxious dog, obligated to fulfill a thousand and one minor and exacting tasks.  She’s the Queen’s right hand minion, her mouthpiece, the harbinger of doom.  Instead of partying with the cast members, she’s on the fringes.

Things take a turn for the dramatic when Zoe ends up with the only evidence which can identify just which cast member took a midnight stroll into the so-called Forbidden Zone, a section of New Jersey swampland absolutely off-limits to unauthorized personnel. Now she has to find the prince in question…but is it to save him out of the goodness of her heart, or turn him in for a better chance at winning the Dream and Do?

As the summer progresses and the mysteries of Fairytale Kingdom deepen, Zoe’s life gets more and more complicated. Not only does she have a rule-breaking prince to track down, she has to watch out for disgruntled princesses, corporate espionage, the Queen’s mercurial moods, Jess’ own unhappy status as a second-rate character, and the overwhelming demands of a spoiled pop icon who’s come to visit for the day.  Oh, and she may be falling for Ian, a Puss In Boots who’s either a total scumbag or her own Prince Charming—she hasn’t decided yet.

There’s something undeniable cute and entertaining about this fast-paced romantic comedy. The Fairytale Kingdom, while clearly inspired by places like Disney, has a certain breath of life all its own, possessing that extra blend of kitschy and seedy which comes from being second or third place. It sounds like a fun, if slightly deranged, place to visit, with its eccentric cast of wannabes and opportunists.  It helps that the Queen rules over her kingdom with the tyrannical ruthlessness of a Miranda Priestly and the capricious whims of Alice’s Queen of Hearts…with all the charm and warm fuzziness that likewise implies.

Strohmeyer does a good job of infusing her point of view character, Zoe, with plenty of likeable qualities, and enough backbone and versatility to put up with her boss’s demands and the job’s ridiculous requirements.  Zoe’s a good person in what seems like a bad situation, determined to do what’s right, for her cousin and for herself…and she’s even willing to do what she can for those unlikely to notice or care, as when she tries to help out the cast members most likely to sab her in the back.

However, what could have been a fairly standard journal of personal growth becomes something even more amazing when we get to the end and Strohmeyer pulls back the wizard’s curtain to reveal the larger story that was taking place all along.  It’s a masterful reveal, one that adds an entire new dimension to the events of the summer, and that’s what bumps the book up a notch in my opinion.  All I can say is well-played.  Well-played indeed.

My only regret is that there doesn’t seem to be much room for diversity in Fairytale Kingdom.  One of the plot points is that there needs to be consistency between character portrayals, so no one gets confused by multiple Cinderellas, for instance, but it’s a shame nonetheless. 

So yeah, if you’ve ever wanted to read a mystery-laced romantic teen comedy set in a theme park that’s not The Mouse, I’ve got just the one for you.  

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