Okay, so I just sat down and read the whole book in one sitting because I could, heh-heh.
I've only read this book once before and just remembered the gist of it and that I liked it, so it was almost like reading it for the first time again. Almost. This time, I picked up on the early description of Aza's specific physical features (white skin, red lips, black hair: Snow White to a tee, minus the "fairest of them all" bit). And I don't remember what I thought of it the first time around, but wow, these guys are a little young to run a kingdom (Aza 15, Ivi 19, Ijori... 17 (though, remembering that people matured at younger ages "back then", it's really not all bad) (plus, Narnia puts four single-digit-to-preteens on the throne, and I don't have a problem with that, so...).
Anyway, that's just trivial stuff.
What stuck out to me a few years ago - and again tonight - was the way the subject of beauty was handled. The humans (excepting Aza's family, Ijori, King Oscaro, and the duchess (kind of)) put such stock in beauty, be it of the face, voice, or ornaments, that it is by perceived beauty that they judge everything. Aza's so ugly that some patrons don't even want her cleaning their rooms. Aza's voice is so pretty that Ivi would use Aza to make her subjects think better of her. These features combined got courtiers crediting her with winning a singing competition whilst also commenting that "it's a shame her mother was a hippopotamus".
All of that goes to emphasize the times the people see something else in Aza apart from her ugly body or her pretty voice or her actually-very-pretty eyes. That humility - however awkward and ungraceful - that caught Ijori's eye. That empathy that convinced Ivi at first glance that she could find a kindred spirit in Aza (regardless of what happened not long after). That listening ear that got the duchess to "tolerate" Aza's company. That character that Aza's family and the gnomes recognized. And the fact that Aza, at the very end, could stand up and say that perceived beauty, be it of voice or face, was no indication whatsoever of a person's heart.
Something else that stuck out to me was Ivi. And I don't mean what a spoiled brat she is, constantly looking for affection and praise and a chance to flaunt her stuff. Well, okay, that stuff plays into it. As Aza had thought to herself early on in the book, going home meant being with people who loved her. Ivi, even in her not-as-beautiful state, was still a pretty enough girl, and if we can take her word about the beaus she had in her home country, very much sought-after company. But, like Aza, she wasn't satisfied with what she did have - and seriously, Oscaro loved her, for whatever reasons - and she, unawares, nearly threw away everything she could have had. True, she might not have loved Oscaro the way he loved her - she practically said herself that she only loved him because she received love from him - but if that had sufficed for her, she could have made for a fine wife, queen, and friend.
On that note, Oscaro. Personally, I think he's a fool for loving Ivi like that. If her behavior when he met her was anything like it was for the rest of the book, how in blazes did he think this marriage was a good idea? (Of course, there's the possibility that she wasn't like that till she became beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, but one has to wonder.) And to credit her of all people, with drawing him back from his coma?
However, that said, I'm walking away with something I'm pretty sure Gail Carson Levine didn't intend: Oscaro reminds me of Christ. I mean, seriously, what good, holy, and just God is willing to make a bride of His wayward, common, certainly-not-pretty, sinful creation? And yet, He does. Oscaro took the blow for Ivi, just as Christ took the death penalty. Just as Ivi has very little to offer Oscaro, so do we; just as Oscaro still loves his childish, vengeful, selfish, nation-destroying chit of a wife, so God still loves us even though we have done (and frankly still do) the same and even worse.
And that is where the truest beauty in this book lies because nothing is more beautiful than that truth.
knight and scribe
(The mustache was nia's idea, not mine.)