Iron Hearted Violet


By Kelly Barnhill

Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

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Newbery Medal winner Kelly Barnhill spins a wondrously different kind of fairy-tale: In most fairy tales, princesses are beautiful, dragons are terrifying, and stories are harmless. But this isn’t most fairy tales…

Princess Violet is plain, reckless, and quite possibly too clever for her own good. Particularly when it comes to telling stories. One day she and her best friend, Demetrius, stumble upon a hidden room and find a peculiar book. A forbidden book. It tells a story of an evil being, called the Nybbas, imprisoned in their world. The story cannot be true–not really. But then the whispers start. Violet and Demetrius, along with an ancient, scarred dragon-the last dragon in existence, in fact-may hold the key to the Nybbas’s triumph or its demise. It all depends on how they tell the story. After all, stories make their own rules.

Iron Hearted Violet is a story about the power of stories, our belief in them, and how one enchanted tale changed the course of an entire kingdom.

A 2012 Andre Norton Award Finalist

A Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner


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Table of Contents

A Sneak Peek of The Mostly True Story of Jack

Copyright Page

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The end of my world began with a story. It also began with a birth.

Princess Violet, last of that name—indeed the last princess at all to be born in the Andulan Realms—was not a pretty child. When she was born, her hair grew in tufted clumps around her pink-and-yellow head, and her mouth puckered to the side whenever anyone peeked into her cradle. Her gaze was sharp, intelligent, and intense, leaving the visitor with the uncanny feeling that the royal infant was sizing him up, assessing his worth—and finding him wanting. She was the type of child whom a person wanted to impress.

Interesting, yes. Intelligent, most certainly. But not a pretty child.

When she was five days old, her round face broke out in a rash that lasted for weeks.

When she was twelve weeks old, the last of her feathery black hair drifted away, leaving her skull quite bald, with a lopsided sheen. Her hair grew back much later as a coarse, crinkly, auburn mass, resistant to braids and ribbons and almost impossible to comb.

When she was one year old, it became clear that her left eye was visibly larger than her right. Not only that, it was a different color, too. While the right eye was as blue as the Western Ocean in the earliest morning, the left was gray—like the smoke offered to the dying sky each evening by the magicians of the eastern wall.

Her nose pugged, her forehead was too tall, and even when she was just a baby, her skin was freckled and blotched, and no number of milk baths or lemon rubs could unmark her.

People remarked about her lack of beauty, but it couldn't be helped. She was a princess all the same. Our Princess. And we loved her.

On the morning in which the infant Violet was officially presented to her waiting and hopeful people, it was dark, windy, and bitter cold. Even in the Great Hall, where there were abundant fires and bodies to cheer us, our breath clouded about our mouths and hung like ghosts, before wisping away. The King and Queen entered quietly, without announcement or trumpets or pomp, and stood before us. The shivering crowd grew silent. In the months following Violet's birth, both mother and child recuperated in seclusion, as the birth itself had been treacherous and terrifying, and we very nearly lost both of them to the careless shrug of Chance.

The Queen wore a red wool gown under a heavy green cloak. She gazed over the Great Hall and smiled. She was, without a doubt, a beautiful queen—black hair, black eyes, skin as luminous as amber, and a narrow gap between her straight, white teeth, which we all knew was a sign of an open and honest heart.

"My beloved," she said. Her voice was weak from her long months in bed, but we hung on to it desperately, every breathing soul among us.

"The snow has drifted heavily upon the northern wall of the castle, and despite our best efforts, a bitter wind probes its fingers into the cracks, scratching at the hearts of the best and bravest among us."

We nodded. It had been a miserable winter, the most miserable in memory. And heartbreakingly long. We were well past the month in which the ice should have begun to recede and the world to thaw. People came in droves to the castle seeking warmth, food, and shelter. As was the custom of our kingdom, none was ever turned away, and as a result, we all contented ourselves with less.

"Rest assured, my beloved people, that though the cold has crusted and iced, though the winds still blow bitterly and without mercy, here, in the darkest winter, a Violet blooms in the snow."

And with that, she undid the top clasp of her heavy cloak and allowed it to fall to the ground. Underneath, a tiny creature was bound to her body with a measure of silk and a series of skillful knots. We saw the downy tufts of hair on the head of the new Princess and those large, mismatched, intelligent eyes.

Princess Violet.

As I said, not a particularly pretty child.

But a wonderful child, who, despite the multitudes present in the room, fixed her eyes on me. And on those tiny lips—a flicker of a smile.


Though both King Randall and Queen Rose longed for a large brood of happy children, alas, their hopes had been dashed. Each time the Queen's womb swelled with joy and expectation, it ended in pain and sorrow. Violet was her only child who lived.

Indeed, Violet's very existence was something of a miracle.

"A miracle!" shouted the citizens of the Andulan Realms on the yearly holiday commemorating the Princess's birth.

"A miracle," glumly proclaimed the advisers and rulers of the Northern Mountains, the Southern Plains, the Eastern Deserts, and the Island Nations to the west, all of whom had harbored hopes that the King and Queen of the Andulan Realms would fail to produce an heir. They stared at map after map, imagining their borders with our country erased, imagining themselves able to reach into the great resources of our prosperous nation and pick plum after plum for their own.

But with the birth of the Princess, there would be no annexation without the bother of war. And, my dears, war is a terrible bother. So our neighbors seethed in secret. They spoke of miracles as they clenched their teeth and tasted acid on their tongues.

AH, hissed a voice, far away at the mirrored edge of the world. AN OPPORTUNITY. And that slithery, whispery voice slowly formulated a plan. It licked its yellow lips and widened its jaws into a grin.


By the time Violet was four years old, she had learned hundreds and hundreds of different ways to slip out of the reach of the watchful eyes that minded her—three sharp-faced nannies, a gaggle of pompous tutors, a quick-moving mother, and an easily distracted father. Each day she would go sprinting away through the twisting and complicated corridors of the castle until she reached my quarters, for the sole purpose of hearing another story. I was a storyteller—the storyteller, practitioner of a revered and respected occupation in my world, with a long and (mostly) glorious history.

Also, I don't mind saying, I was rather good at it.

While there was, in theory, a requirement that any castle resident or visitor must capture the fugitive Princess and deliver her, posthaste, to one of her nannies for the swift application of disciplinary action, this rule was routinely ignored.

Indeed, as it was well known where she would go, the Queen felt it was far simpler to retrieve the child from her intended destination.

The Queen, incidentally, liked my stories, too.

By the time Violet was six years old, she began telling stories of her own. My dears, my heart was filled to bursting! How proud I was! How vain! How delighted that this wonderful child should seek to emulate me!

Pride, alas, is a terrible thing.

Violet's stories, even at her very young age, went far beyond my own. She took stories—true stories, false stories, and those of questionable intention—and turned them on their heads, shook them up and down, making them new again. The child told stories with enthusiasm, verve, and wild abandon. And she was a wonder.

"There once was a dragon," the young Violet said one night after dinner to a hushed, delighted crowd, her mismatched eyes glowing in the firelight, her untamable hair floating around her head like embers, "the largest and smartest and powerfulest dragon in all our mirrored world." She spoke with a slight lisp, due to the slow loss of her childhood teeth, but it only added to the charm. "His fire was hottest, his flight was fastest, and even the Greater Sun was jealous of his beauty. But"—she held up one finger, wagging it slightly—"it had a problem. This dragon fell in love with a princess. A human princess."

"Ah!" the assembled crowd cried out. "Poor dragon! Poor princess!" They pressed against one another, shoulder to shoulder, laughing all the while.

Violet raised her eyebrows and continued. "The princess lived in a faraway country, and they had never met. Dragons, you see, can spy halfway across the world if they choose to, and can fly from one end of the mirrored sky and back again in less than a day. But they usually don't." She pursed her lips. "Dragons are terribly lazy."

The listeners chuckled and sighed. That child! they thought. That magic child!

"But this dragon," Violet continued, "was not lazy at all. It was in love. It didn't eat or sleep. It just sat on top of a mountain, its shiny tail curled around the peak, its black eyes searching the world for its love."

"All the time?" I asked incredulously. "Surely it must have had other hobbies!"

"Well," Violet allowed, "sometimes it enjoyed throwing snowballs at the head of the Mountain King." The crowd laughed. She cocked her head conspiratorially and raised one eyebrow. "It had perfect aim. And when the dragon passed gas, it made sure to point its rump right toward the Mountain King's gardens." The crowd roared. Violet leaned in. "They say the stink can last for a hundred years!" she whispered.

"Tell us about the dragon's lady love!" a young man said.

"Oh, she was an ugly thing," the Princess assured us. "She had moles in the shape of horny toads across her cheeks, and a crooked nose, and even crookeder teeth. Her smile was too big, and her eyes were too small, and her feet were of differing sizes. But the dragon loved her anyway. It loved her and loved her and loved her some more. The dragon loved her crooked teeth and loved her hairy wrists and loved her frizzy, frizzy hair."

No one laughed. An embarrassed silence pressed onto the crowd. They couldn't look at Violet.

(Not a pretty child, they thought. And, alas, growing uglier by the day.)

Violet waited for the praise that didn't come.

I tried to intervene. "Beloved Violet," I said, my voice tumbling from my mouth in a rush. "You have made a beginner's mistake! You have forgotten the beauty! A princess is never ugly. Everyone knows that a real princess is always beautiful." Violet didn't move. It was as though I had turned her to stone. Finally she fixed her large eyes on me. And oh! The hurt! The betrayal! I swallowed. "In a story, I mean," I added hastily, but it was too late. "Of course I mean in a story. Stories have their own rules, their own… expectations. It's the job of the teller to give the people what they want."

The crowd nodded. Violet said nothing. And oh, my dears! How I wanted to catch that child in my arms and tell her I didn't mean it! But the damage was done.

Finally: "You are right, beloved Cassian," she said quietly, tilting her eyes to the ground. "What was I thinking? The dragon, of course, was in love with a beautiful princess. The most beautiful in the world, with amber skin and tiny feet and eyes as green as spring grass and honeyed hair so thick it fell in great ropes down to her knees."

It was a line she'd stolen from one of my stories. I let it slide. But as she continued and finished her tale, I could feel that her heart was elsewhere, and when she excused herself to go to bed, she left without saying good night.

After that, the princesses in her stories were always beautiful. Always.


When Violet was seven years old, she made her first friend. Indeed, her only friend.

Normally, the children of kings and queens were limited in their play to their siblings or their cousins or the children of courtiers. However, in Violet's case, she had no siblings, and as both her father and mother were without siblings, she had no cousins. Additionally, while the courtiers certainly had children of their own, they were all either quite a bit older or quite a bit younger, and therefore unsuitable playmates for a vigorous girl.

Still, Violet needed a friend. And as it turned out, a friend was waiting for her.

This is how they met:

Violet, being a terribly bright girl, had been placed under the intellectual care of tutors since the age of three and a half. By seven, she could read, do sums, recite historical facts, analyze, and debate. And what's more, she memorized everything she read, and most of the things that she heard, too. Unfortunately, the child detested her studies, so when she wasn't hatching schemes to play tricks on the sour-faced men and women who taught her, she slipped away from her tutors whenever she could.

One day, when the mirrored sky was particularly brilliant and when both the Greater and Lesser Suns gleamed to their best effect, Violet decided that she had no interest in staying indoors. So, using her very best imitation of her mother's handwriting, she wrote a note to her tutor that his advisory skills were needed in the throne room. Urgently. The old man flushed and tittered and told the child to work very hard on her translation until he returned. He left muttering, "At last, at last," and shut the door behind him. Once he was safely away, Violet slipped out the window, shimmied down the drain, and skirted into the fields west of the castle.

The day was so fine that the child decided to run. And jump. And climb. And after she had climbed over six different fences and sprinted across five and a half different fields, she found herself standing right in the middle of a grazing meadow, exactly opposite a very large bull. Its coat was brown and white and shining. It rippled and bulged over the bull's broad shoulders and back. The bull's damp nostrils flared and snorted.

Violet froze.

The bull stared at the child—her wild hair, her filthy cheeks, her red, red dress. It scraped one hoof against the ground and lowered its horns.

"Help," Violet called, her voice a tight squeak. "Help me!"

The bull bellowed and lunged forward, the weight of it shaking the ground as it thundered toward the Princess. Violet turned on her heels and raced for the closest fence.

"Stop," a voice said. Her own? Violet didn't know. She looked up and, through her fear, she saw a figure launch itself over the fence and run straight toward her.

"No!" Violet said, panic making her vision go bright and jagged. "I can't stop." But just as she said this, her left foot hooked into a small hole. She pitched forward, fell head over knees, and sprawled onto the ground. She covered her head with her arms.

A boy leaped lightly over the cowering Princess and put his body between the bull and the girl. Violet shut her eyes, waiting to hear the boy's bones splintering under the hooves of the great beast, waiting to feel her own body trampled into the dirt, leaving nothing behind.

Instead, she heard this: "Stop screaming, will you? You're scaring him."

Violet tried to say I'm not screaming, but her mouth was wide and round, a scream tearing unbidden from her chest. For a brief flash, embarrassment eclipsed her fear. She shut her jaw with a snap and pulled herself to her knees.

A boy with a mop of black, curly hair stood between her and the bull. He was shorter than Violet, and scrawny, but with lean, ropy muscles twisting from his neck into his shoulders and down his arms.

Is he going to wrestle it? Violet wondered.

The bull, on the other hand, stood still, its eyes on the black-haired boy.

His hands were raised, palms out, and he made a noise over and over—something midway between a mother's cooing and a father's shushing. A sweet, soft, whispery sort of sound. The beast was motionless, but its head remained lowered, its muscles bulged, and its eyes were bloodshot and angry and wild. They rolled and quivered as though about to burst. Still, Violet was incredulous.

"How could I scare him?" she asked. "He was the one—"

"Your dress," the boy said quietly, without turning around. His voice was infuriatingly calm. "Your dress is scaring him. It's not his fault. Stand up and walk slowly toward the fence. But walk backward. He needs to feel you watching him. You must not look away."

Violet's mouth dropped open. "But—" She paused, gaping. No one had ever spoken to her in this way before. And despite her terror, she was mystified. "I am the Princess. You're not supposed—"

"Do you want to be dead?" the boy asked. If he had any emotion at all, he certainly didn't show it. He said this as casually as if he were asking the Princess if she wanted a spot of cream or a spoonful of sugar.

"No," Violet admitted.

"Well then?"

Violet sniffed but got to her feet all the same and started walking backward toward the fence, maintaining her gaze on the bull in the middle of the field. It grunted and wheezed and whined. And the great muscles on the beast's shoulders and flanks trembled piteously. He really is frightened, Violet realized. And despite the terror twisting her insides into a knot, she felt a stab of compassion for the creature.

The boy kept pace with her, his hands still raised, his eyes on the bull, his mouth continuing its quieting sounds until both he and Violet were safely on the other side of the fence. Finally he slumped forward, rested his hands on his thighs, and sighed deeply.

Violet fidgeted, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "I—" she stammered. "Or, I mean to say—" She paused. "Thank you."

The boy gave her a savage look. "What were you thinking?" he hissed, stepping aggressively forward. "Didn't you see the signs?"

"No," she said. "I was running."

"Don't you look on the other side of fences to see if it's safe?"

"No," Violet said, aghast. "I never have."

"Well, you're an idiot." The boy stepped away, jamming his fingers into his curly hair and hanging on tight. He looked as if he had more to say. He bit his lower lip hard.

"You are not supposed—" Violet said hotly.

"That bull would have killed you," the boy said. "And then they would have killed him, too, even though it was an accident and it was just because he was scared. So that would be two lives lost—for nothing. Just because you couldn't bother yourself to look." He kicked a loose stone on the ground. "Stupid."

The boy's eyes welled up. He turned his back toward her and quickly wiped his tears away. But it did him no good to hide it. Violet saw. She pressed her lips together and took a step closer. She was not used to talking to children her own age, and she wasn't sure how to begin.

"What's your name?" she said at last.

He wouldn't look at her, and he wouldn't answer.

"Please," Violet whispered, putting her hand on the boy's arm. "Tell me your name."

"Demetrius," he said at last. "Am I in trouble?"

Violet shook her head. "Of course not." And for an awful moment, she could see how easy—how terribly easy—it would be to get him, or anyone, into trouble. A hint. An accusation. A moment of manufactured tears. She would never need any proof. The very thought—just the thought—made her sick inside. She shook it away. "How did you do that?" she said, changing the subject. "With the bull, I mean?"

He shrugged. "You probably could, too. If you ever learned. You just have to feel with them." He wrinkled his eyebrows and thought a minute. "Or," he clarified, "they just need to feel you caring about them. Lots of people can do it. If they bother to. It's not hard."

"Will you show me?"

So Demetrius took her to the stables. He pointed to his house right next door, where he lived with his father, the stable master—a man Violet had met many times. Her father often called on the stable master to assist in his research. The two men would have lengthy and, Violet thought, ponderous discussions on the history and biology and physiology of dragons—though neither man had ever laid eyes on one. No one had for a hundred years. But Violet never knew that the quiet, gentle man had a son. She did know, though, that he had no wife. Or that his wife had died a long time ago. Violet knew that the subject of dead mothers was likely not polite conversation, but she wondered about it all the same.

The stable master, upon seeing the child Violet engrossed in a lesson on the care of horses, which was interrupted every once in a while by a game that consisted of the two children running and screeching around the yard, sent a message with one of his apprentices that the Princess had been found and was safe, and where she could be fetched. Within the hour she was dragged back to the castle, protesting loudly, by her mother, two nannies, and a rather embarrassed tutor.

Still, in the midst of her howls and pleading and threats, she shot a look at the boy Demetrius, and the two shared a quick and meaningful grin.

I'll be back in a bit, Violet's grin said.

I'll be waiting, Demetrius grinned back.


After that, Violet and Demetrius saw each other nearly every day. They found excuses and schemes to leave their studies and their chores behind, to slip away from the adults who minded them, and to set off on their own mad adventures.

They made an unorthodox pair, but the King and Queen were of a modern view.

"They are only children, after all," the Queen said often.

"Why hamper them with the burdens of social class? They shall have to trouble themselves with such foolishness soon enough!" the King agreed.

The court advisers argued against the friendship, voicing worries about dangerous precedents and political implications and the prerequisites of propriety. Violet's parents had the final say. "We simply don't see the harm," they said. And that was that.

Together, the children explored nearly every inch of the castle—or at least they thought they did. Every day the castle revealed new secrets, and every day it kept its most important secret cleverly hidden. Castles are tricky that way. The pair explored the castle grounds as well—its grazing fields and broad gardens and parks. They explored the twisting streets of the capital city and followed the wall that snaked around the city's edge, hugging it tight, and their fingers grazed against the ancient stones. And later they ventured farther out into the fields and forests beyond the city, exiting through the four gates that opened in the four directions. Those gates let the world inside. Or kept it out. Gates sometimes have a mind of their own.

Violet learned how to care for the horses and the goats and the falcons and the dogs. Demetrius taught her how to search for illness, how to communicate calm, how to listen to the voice coming from the animal's heart. Though he never, Violet noticed, taught her how to stop a raging bull, which, she felt, would have been a useful thing to know. (For his part, Demetrius assured her that it was a skill that could not be taught, and it was only in the moment when a person discovered whether he could or whether he was dead. Privately, the boy's dreams screamed with pounding hooves and pointed horns and a pair of livid, bloodshot eyes.)

Inside the castle, when we gathered for our nightly songs and stories and dancing, Demetrius proved to be nearly as clever a storyteller as Violet herself. And neither alone was quite as remarkable as the two of them together.

Together, they were a marvel.

"Shall we play at stories?" Violet said one day as they once again used my quarters as a hideout from the watchful eyes of the adults in the castle. I indulged them. How could I not? After all, someone would be here soon enough to fetch them.

"All right," I said, pouring steaming water from the kettle into the teapot and swirling the fragrant leaves in the water. There never was a story that didn't go down better with tea. "Give me a story about the beginning of the world."

"Which world?" Violet asked. "There are thousands of worlds in the multiverse."

"More than thousands," Demetrius said. "Millions."

"Millions of thousands of millions," Violet crowed, throwing her hands in the air. "They are endless."

"Fine," I said. "That is all very fine, but I, for one, am not impressed by the wonders of the other worlds in the multiverse. What care have I for wonders that I can neither see nor will ever visit? Tell me a story of our world, our twin suns, our mirrored sky. What use do I have for anything else?"

"Once, long ago, before the Old Gods formed the multiverse," Demetrius began, ignoring my request, "before the multitudes of worlds and worlds and worlds bubbled and foamed like a sea, there was only one world, one universe. And it was a terrible place."

(I might mention that the boy stole this story from me, but that would be terribly petty and small of me, so I shall let it pass.)


  • A 2012 Andre Norton Award Finalist
A Parents' Choice Gold Award Winner
  • "Barnhill inverts common fairy-tale notions...[and creates] the most inventive rendition of architecture since J.K. Rowling conjured Hogwarts....Poetic."—The New York Times Book Review
  • "A splendid fantasy...layered and complex, Barnhill's story brings a modern feel to age-old fairy tale tropes."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Storytelling plays a key role in the book, intriguingly blurring the line between what is real and what is imaginary....Triumphant."—The Horn Book
  • "Wonderful read-aloud potential...with a likable hero and heroine, a well-paced plot, and a daunting villain."—Booklist
  • "[Violet] is a princess for our century."—VOYA
  • On Sale
    Mar 18, 2014
    Page Count
    448 pages

    Kelly Barnhill

    Kelly Barnhill

    About the Author

    Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children. She is the author of six novels, including The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the 2017 John Newbery Medal. She is also the winner of the World Fantasy Award and has been a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, a Nebula Award, and the PEN/USA literary prize. Visit her online at or on Twitter: @kellybarnhill.

    Learn more about this author