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Review: Deception’s Princess

Review: Deception’s Princess

Title: Deception’s Princess
Author: Esther Friesner
Published: 2014
Length: 324 pages

My star rating:  ★ 

Warnings: This review contains a few minor spoilers; if you would like a spoiler-free review, they are hidden on Goodreads.

What a dreadful book.

I don’t often give stuff one star, and I feel like I’m going to be too hard on it because it’s not only young adult, but the recommended age range is 11 to 14.

It deserves one star anyway.

I picked this up because I liked both Nobody’s Princess and Nobody’s Prize, and because hardly anybody writes historical fiction about Ireland at all, much less Iron Age/medieval Ireland. It wasn’t a pretty or romantic time, but one of cattle raids, fierce tribal loyalties, potentially vicious warfare, and of course, a time of druids, paganism and the “old ways” when they were truly alive and flourishing.

In fact, I finished it for that reason, and that reason alone, and despite the setting, this book is unforgivably bad.

Deception’s Princess is the story of Maeve, the beautiful youngest daughter of the King of Connacht and High King of Eriu (aka Ireland). Since she has no brothers and is her father’s favorite, every man wants to marry Maeve. (I don’t know exactly how inheritance worked in first-century Ireland, but it puzzled me that Maeve’s father promised his primary kingdom, Connacht, to his youngest daughter’s husband, but maybe Friesner’s got evidence to back that choice up. I really have no idea.) Stuff happens to Maeve throughout the book, but it’s lacking in any real plot. It’s a mixture of Medieval Times and a plodding coming-of-age story.

I clear this up before I go any further: though Meave and her family never existed, this is a work of historical fiction; it is not fantasy. Nothing magical happens. I’m not even convinced that Maeve really believes in the “Fair Folk” or her own gods, for that matter. This is not a fantasy novel.

Phew. Okay. Moving on!

Maeve herself is this book’s biggest problem—though far from its only problem. Unbearable side characters aren’t good, but an unbearable protagonist (and narrator)? That’s a death blow.

First person is not always an author’s friend, especially when a character is so whiny, selfish, and all-around self-centered as Maeve is. The cover may be reminiscent of Brave, but Maeve is no Merida—she never grows or learns and is absolutely not a strong (or even responsible) princess or a strong anything. She’s incredibly annoying, and that’s about it.

She would be the definition of a Mary Sue if she wasn’t constantly screwing up, embarrassing herself and her family, and generally ruining everything. She’s so beautiful (apparently even at 11…?) that all the men want her; she’s (supposedly) brave; she’s equally kind and gracious to almost everyone below her in society, including slaves; and she would apparently make a good warrior, or so one of her friends says. And oh, she’s “not like the other girls,” because they gossip and giggle and like boys. The horror. Don’t even get me started on the fact that most women, especially women who started training relatively late in life compared to their male contemporaries, lacking enough upper body strength to properly wield a monstrous broadswords or other Iron Age weapon. That would require biological facts—or at least some logic—and facts, my friends, are stubborn things. No one even stays upset with her for very long, even when she deserves it.

This is the reason they say “show, don’t tell”—Friesner (through Maeve) tells us that her heroine is all the things I listed above, but what evidence do readers have to make them believe her? How do we know selfish, whiny Maeve is even a reliable narrator?

Is she beautiful? Maeve constantly moans and groans about all the compliments and flattery heaped upon her by hopeful suitors, but all we know specifically about her appearance is that she’s got curly red hair.

Is she brave? She’s certainly reckless, sometimes to the point of being stupid, but her actions throughout the book give us a muddled picture of a girl who challenges powerful druids but who also cowers at the sight of fox cubs.

Is she kind and gracious? Sometimes. She’s nice to her best friend’s sweetheart (who also happens to be a servant). At one point, she helps free some slaves. But she also has no friends, and it’s not hard to see why, since she thinks she’s better than all the girls in her household. She’s always haughty and short with every man who admires her in any way, and she’s often flat-out rude to her elders. She thinks she knows everything and is smarter than everyone, even as the story proves, time after time, that she isn’t and doesn’t.

In short: people don’t consider her rebellious because she’s a woman who dares to speak her mind. It’s because she won’t sit down, and shut up, and listen when she ought to and doesn’t believe that anyone knows any better than her about anything.

For example:

I wanted answers now. … “Let me pass, I cried, trying to shove my way between them. … “Mother! Mother!”

“Maeve, stop acting like a wild thing and go.” Mother’s voice was tense and strained. “This doesn’t concern you.”

“It’s about Father. It does.

Can you hear me rolling my eyes yet?

“Maeve, I’ve told you not to trouble your mind with this. It’s my place to handle it.”

“And what’s mine?” I would not shout at him. I would not give him the chance to claim I had no more control over my temper than a cranky child. “To sit and sew?”

“That,” he said lightly, “and to go on as you’ve been with our visitors, my spark. … Keep the peace for me.”

Yeah, it’s like you’re a princess or something.

And did I already mention she was selfish?

“What are you doing here?” I demanded. He didn’t deserve such a hostile reaction, but his unexpected presence had spoiled my plans to enjoy solitude. I wasn’t thinking about fairnss, only: This is my place, my special hideaway, mine! He has no right to come here uninvited, with or without those nasty beasts.

Oh, what a prize, that Maeve.

“Father, I tell you, it was an accident. I didn’t—”

I pleaded my case, insisting that the wild chariot ride was nothing I’d planned, not mischief but mischance. I begged Fechin to defend me…

Or you could own up to making the mistake of stupidly playing around in another king’s chariot even though you know nothing about horses…? It’s the Iron Age, not Disneyland!

It’s like Friesner wanted to make Maeve good and likable and kept trying to make her out to be those things when she obviously was not.

For example, the blatant hypocrisy of these two statements is so awful it’s almost wonderful:

”You know she’s carrying twins again, and that can mean difficulties, especially for a woman of her age. … [T]hey’re punier than other infants, sometimes too small to live.”

I shivered to hear the midwife pronounce that dark hint of unthinkable possibilities. “Please don’t say such things,” I told her. “It sounds too much like ill-wishing.” Cera glared at me for that.

Mother took my hands. “Dear Maeve, Cera…didn’t soothe me with falsehoods but gave me the hard truth, so I’d be prepared.”

Some people value honesty,” the midwife snapped.

“I’m sorry I offended you, Cera,” I said. “I do appreciate the truth.”

She cocked one eyebrow at me. “If you say so, Princess.”

What does she mean by that? I wondered.

Maybe that you’re an idiot, Maeve?

“Lady Clothru will only stay with us until after Samhain’s past and she’s complied with the High King’s wishes.”

“His…wishes?”

“That she fulfill his role at the rites.”

“But he promised that honor to me!”

Jolted, I cried out too loudly. I lowered my voice…and repeated, “He promised it to me. I earned it. … There must be some mistake.”

Lady Ide cradled my face in her cool hands the way Mother sometimes did. “I’m sorry, dearest Maeve…I was sure you already knew he’d changed his mind about your part in the rites.”

“Why would he bother to tell me? He gives and he takes away, with cause or on a whim. Nothing’s changed since the day he let me think he’d give me Dubh but never did.”

“Maeve, you mustn’t be upset—”

“I’m not,” I said, and was surprised to realize this was true. I was strangely calm after learning how father had taken back the honor he’d given to me.

Sure you’re not. It’s not like you just made a scene over it or anything.

Maeve also believes in the “Fair Folk” and the sacredness of the guest-host relationship, but not, apparently, in the power of the druids. But the worst of her hypocrisies is that, from the beginning of the novel, Maeve longs for freedom, say she’s not a prize to be won, and loathes the very idea of suitors, much less the actual attention they pay her.

“Do you hate learning your future duties so much?” [Mother] demanded. “Or do you simply have no respect me?”

I wanted to tell her what was wrong. I wanted to say, “Men are looking at me all the time. Men are talking to me, And I don’t like it.” But I couldn’t. When I put my feelings into words while alone, they sounded stupid. [p. 20]

Yeah, they do sound stupid. And then, suddenly:

And somehow, in the middle of so much joy, I vanished. … [I] braced myself for renewed assaults of courtship. These never happened. … It was a kind of freedom, becoming unimportant,–the wrong kind. [pp. 262-4]

Good God, girl, make up your mind. What do you want?!

Maybe worst of all, she rings false as a girl from her time and place. She’s afraid of foxes and even of some dogs. She almost faints because of a nasty smell. She lives in the freaking Iron Age and we’re expected to believe she’s a potential warrior, but also this much of a wilting flower? Please. Spare me.

There were other issues, too. The (stock) characters were almost caricatures; the Strong Warrior/Weak Man King, the Catty, No-Nonsense Queen (who could have been the most interesting character of the book if she’d actually been in it at all), the Evil Druid and his Meek Love Interest son…just spare me. (The Evil Druid character particularly bothered me—his weirdly sexual behavior towards Maeve aside—because he wasn’t anything but ambitious and evil. Hasn’t anyone ever told Ms. Friesner that characters that are purely evil with no other personality traits are as boring as watching paint dry?)

All this could’ve been redeemed if there had been any semblance of an interesting plot, but there wasn’t. Everything was very episodic—one thing or interaction happened, then ended; then another conflict began and was quickly resolved. As I said, Stuff Happened to Maeve, and that’s really the only “plot” to be found in this story.

Another note to authors: every event doesn’t need to center around or be caused or dramatically affected by the protagonist to make an interesting story. If stuff wasn’t happening to Maeve, very little stuff was happening at all, except for the “the probably-forty-year-old-queen-is-pregnant-again” subplot.

Insta-love is pretty much the only YA sin this book doesn’t commit, at least not outright, but even the love story is forced, contrived, and ends abruptly. Everyone teases Maeve about her “sweetheart” Odran, she insists she doesn’t like him that way…but then they end up as sweethearts after all. Wow. No one saw that coming.

The prose itself wasn’t terrible (or particularly difficult, since this is a book for young teens), so that was a blessing. I didn’t really care for Ms. Friesner’s writing style (italicize everything!), but if the bones of her story had been decent, that could have been easily overlooked.

I’ll grant that Ms. Friesner probably did quite a bit of research for this book. There isn’t a lot of information on Ireland at this time—the Romans called it “Hibernia,” the Land of Winter, and generally didn’t give a shit about it—though there’s enough solid archeology on which to build a world for a YA historical novel. That said, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the “world-building” here. I never had a good sense of place or even of time. There were aspects of Maeve’s life and culture, such as the very concept of foster families, that were very poorly explained, and Maeve would throw out plenty of place-names, but there was shamefully little description of Connacht or the hill-fort she liveed in, especially considering how often and how far she supposedly wandered. Ireland is a gorgeous country and first-century Ireland, especially, should provide an author opportunity for lush descriptions—where were the rolling green hills, the silvery mist, the thick, shadowy (or sun-dappled) forests, the mysterious stone circles? All we got was some half-hearted descriptions of fairy mounds.

Well, and this:

Bog land and forest, streams and ponds, deer paths and grazing fields for cattle, all of these became my realm.

What an unbelievable way to waste a potentially stunning setting.

A much better example of historical fiction from this (approximate) era, though it’s set in Iron Age Britain and not Ireland, is Child of the Northern Spring. There, the entire world, geographically and culturally, really comes alive. In fact, that whole book is similar (but far superior) to this one in a number of ways. Its narrator is also a much more believable and likable character, for what it’s worth.

This book also interpreted gender roles, um…interestingly. I’m not denying that there was probably some sexism in Iron Age society, but at the same time, when you’ve got a pantheon full of ferocious goddesses and you’re all struggling together to survive—and women, in at least some cases, can rule in their own right—I find the blatant, in-your-face sexism as presented in this book a little unbelievable.

If anything, Maeve herself is the sexist one.

“That’s a sensible reason for me to spend the day with a mob of…giggling girls.”

She’s constantly scorning the gossiping, chatty foster-girls who live with her family, as if she’s somehow better than them because she does not fit as neatly as they do into traditional feminine roles—when in reality, at least they’ve got companions, sweethearts, and aren’t always being contrary, selfish, or utterly miserable.

Oh, and one last thing: I mentioned Brave earlier. A lot of other reviews have said, “Oh my God, that cover art is exactly like Brave!”

Well, other than being reckless and scorning the idea of marriage (and the very concept of being a princess), Maeve is nothing like Merida, as I also already said, and Brave is set in Scotland rather than Ireland contrary to popular belief, but there are some obvious parallels in the story overall, particularly towards the end—when you read it, you can’t avoid thinking, “What a rip-off”—that annoyed me quite a bit.

At least Merida never had a half-baked, uninteresting love interest to bog her story down.

As a whole, this book was just a wash. I certainly won’t be checking out the sequel—or the rest of the Princesses of Myth series, for that matter.

P.S.: I never really understood what the “deception” the title referred to was. Maybe I’m just dumb.

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