Happy second round of Nerds Heart YA! After much deliberation, Allegra of My Library Card Wore Out and I chose Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson as our winner. It was a tough call, of course, as I loved many things about Tall Story. But ultimately we decided Toads and Diamonds had more “kid appeal.”
In the French fairy tale on which this is based, one sister is kind to a fairy/witch/whathaveyou and is blessed to have jewels and flowers drop from her mouth when she speaks. The second sister goes to demand the same blessing, but because of her rudeness is cursed with toads and snakes. In this twist, the snakes and toads are a blessing of a different sort — toads are lucky and snakes are revered as rat-catching symbols of the goddess Naghali. The setting is a fictionalized polytheistic 17th century India, occupied by fictionalized pseudo-Muslims who call themselves Believers.
Tana and her mother Hiral are the only family Diribani has left after her father, Hiral’s second wife, dies. Miracle of miracles, they actually love each other; no wicked stepmother and sister here. Newly impoverished, both sisters want to keep the family together, but the goddess’s blessings make that impossible. Diribani wants to share her gift, but nearly starts a riot during a parade for the visiting prince and is taken to his palace far away for her protection. Tana’s gift is feared by the Believers. The prince orders her and Hiral to live in the temple grove outside the village, where her beasties can quietly slither off to the forest. They are sad to be separated, but it seems for the best.
But of course it’s not that simple. Diribani has a hard time fitting in with her new companions, who are Believers and royalty to boot. The wicked, greedy local governor drives Tana out and wants Diribani and her jewels for himself. And of course both girls fall for men they think they can’t have.
I liked the delicate interplay between the two religions. The Believers are an occupying power, yes, but they are only portrayed as evil at the beginning, while they’re still “the other” — as Diribani gets to know them she comes to appreciate their customs. I also liked Diribani’s and Tana’s separate quests to determine what Naghali intends for them to do with her gifts. Both girls have quite believable crises of faith, but the goddess never really forsakes them. This is an unabashedly religious book in a way that modern readers will relate to, I think, even though the religion is made up. There was also a surprising amount of complex political intrigue; I can see this appealing to fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief.
None of the characters ever particularly grabbed me, unfortunately. There’s too much “oh woe, I am a plain/useless/lazy girl; my sister is so much better than me” from both sisters, though that improves some once they start traveling and having adventures. The book struck me as a bit overwritten, with a lot of unnecessary explanation of thoughts and feelings that were obvious. But the descriptions were certainly gorgeous, and Allegra and I both loved the fairy tale “twist.” Most importantly, a lot more happens than in Tall Story, and on that basis we thought it would be more appealing to young readers. I had a blast chatting with Allegra about these books, as she is a young teenager herself and therefore very differently qualified than I am to judge kid appeal!