In what can conceivably be described as Ella Enchanted meets Vampire Academy, Melissa de La Cruz’s latest novel, The Encanto’s Daughter, takes the thrilling royal fantasy setting and combines it with the drama of intense schooling for one’s magical abilities. The many incorporations of Filipino culture and its influence are seamless and contribute to the fairytale-like world building set up by de la Cruz. It’s a tenderly crafted, if perhaps occasionally rushed, tale that feels like a thoughtful and grand metaphor for children of the diaspora.
The Encanto’s Daughter follows MJ Rodriguez, a hapcanto, a term that means half-human and half-encanto (encantos are fairies/magical creatures). But MJ isn’t just any hapcanto. She’s the daughter of King Vivencio, ruler of the fairy realm of Biringan. After her father’s sudden death, MJ, the only heir to the throne, is whisked off to Biringan in preparation to assume her royal role.
In her lessons, MJ finds out more about her magical identity and finds herself drawn to one of her peers, the handsome Sir Lucas. She must also confront the growing threat of insurgents who seek to usurp the throne and claim power for themselves. Soon, MJ discovers that her father’s death may not have been an accident — and that the same force behind it may now be after her.
In addition to the Filipino representation in its characters, The Encanto’s Daughter also warmly depicts Filipino culture, from the food to the use of nicknames. Beyond that inclusion, there’s another important portrayal of dual identities. MJ’s central conflict may be with the insurgents, but that conflict revolves around MJ’s identity as a hapcanto.
MJ’s always only known the human world she lives in, so it’s a shock when she’s taken to the fairy kingdom of Biringan. Not only does she have to get used to life there, MJ must also prepare to rule an entire kingdom she doesn’t know at all. The struggle can be seen as paralleling the struggles of mixed race and/or diasporic children who return to their home countries.
This struggle is the most intimate and well-crafted aspect of the novel. MJ is constantly questioned by those around her for not understanding the new world she’s found herself in, despite being half-encanto by birth. Her legitimacy as an heir is always up for debate, and her status as a hapcanto means that there’s an added layer of stigma against MJ. It’s a fish-out-of-water tale, except de la Cruz’s fish has her very identity questioned in addition to being in new surroundings. De la Cruz’s ability to deliver a diasporic reckoning story enveloped in a princess’ ascension story is in a class by itself.
The story happens rather abruptly, with not too much context given before MJ is taken to Biringan. It may not be quite clear why MJ is so invested in becoming the ruler of a kingdom she’s never known. Her character motivations to undergo such grueling scrutiny can be questionable. Not only that, there’s not much readers get from MJ’s life before going to Biringan, which could have contextualized MJ’s life.
Much of the story takes place through MJ’s classroom lessons, but one gets the sense that The Encanto’s Daughter would have been a much more dynamic story had there been a vital adventure component to it. De la Cruz extends such a vivid invitation to the kingdom of Biringan that it’s a bit of a letdown to not see MJ journeying through forests, mountains, or other exciting, visually-packed locales (which could present a lot of sticky situations). There might be missed opportunities for The Encanto’s Daughter to heighten the fantasy and what the genre’s readers love most there, especially since the adventure could be the opportunity to bring love interests closer together.
Currently, MJ’s romance with Lucas is sweet, but happens rather quickly. There would be more of a solid foundation to it had The Encanto’s Daughter involve more action along with the schooling. There’ll be a second book continuing MJ’s story, which could be the place for de la Cruz to entirely embrace and commit to the possibilities of the fantasy genre. The Encanto’s Daughter has already embarked on that journey.