The book opens with Curdie. The king and Princess Irene have left the area to return to their castle, and Curdie is in danger of becoming an ordinary, somewhat stupid man; a stereotypical miner. He is saved from this fate by Princess Irene's great-great-grandmother, who sends him off to Gwyntystorm, where the King and Irene have left to. There, Curdie is captured by many of the king's men. In his sickness, these men of Gwyntystorm have taken control of the kingdom, yet concealing their actions from others in the nation. Curdie finds the king and Irene, and discovers that the king's sickness is in reality poison, administered by the treacherous doctor who is among those who want the king dead. Together with Irene, Curdie must use what Great-great-grandmother Irene has given him to topple the evil men and restore the King to his land.
Though I found the plot of this one more interesting than the last, it makes use of several peculiarities which brand it as 19th century writing. First of all, the great-great-grandmother, who is clearly something much more than a mere person, appears conveniently at several points to aid the heroes, including a veritable army of white doves. We can conclude that this lady may even be meant to represent God, though MacDonald never says so explicitly. Second, the aid of forty-nine hideous beasts of the mine is never fully explained, but instead conveniently used to help Curdie topple the evil rebellion.
Despite these drawbacks, the story of The Princess and Curdie is quite interesting, focusing even more than the first book on Curdie. His character takes center stage in both, despite the Princess Irene being in the title of both. This book, somewhat more realistically than the first, portrays Curdie with struggles of his own, which helped me to connect and relate with the character. The book ends with Irene and Curdie's marriage, unfortunately signaling the end of the series.
One other interesting quirk of this book, which likely stems from its position as one of the fantasy genre ground-breakers, is its unhappy ending (spoilers ahead). Though upon her father's death Irene weds Curdie, and they rule the kingdom, the book takes us very quickly through their entire lives. Following their deaths, childless, an evil king takes control of the throne, and his lust for gold is so great that he mines underneath the city and destroys it. The final sentences in the book describe the ruined city, through which a river now flows. Having a fairy tale which doesn't end with a happy ending was so unexpected to me that had I disliked the book overall, this alone would have changed my critique.
This ironic twist, in taking the city from an evil rebellion to good rulers and finally to destruction, says something interesting about human nature which most modern novels would be afraid to face. It is such little inclusions like these, of which the book is full of that made this novel so enjoyable to me. Another instance would be the beast Lina, who is eventually turned back into a woman as she once was.
MacDonald's books are good, I have concluded. My initial dislike, I suspect, was largely from an unfamiliar style of writing and an author who was one of the foremost creators of the entire fantasy genre, which naturally leads to a different feel and read than other fantasy books. If you, like me, can get past these hindrances, than this book and others of his are good reads, quick and enjoyable. But if you have trouble with older novels or are often bored by the slow pace of a novel, this book will leave you asleep, being both old and slow-paced at times.