Sunday, July 31, 2011

The False Princess

Title:               The False Princess
Category:       Fantasy
Grade:            14-18
Author:          Eilis O’Neal
Publisher:       Egmont
Place:              New York
Date:               2011
Pages:             319

A nomination for Teens’ Top Ten that will surely be a fierce competitor, The False Princess is the quintessential princess fantasy for lovers of that sub-genre, and even readers beyond it.  Not long after her sixteenth birthday, Princess Nalia’s world is turned upside down when she is told that she is not, in fact, the princess Nalia.  Born Sinda, she was brought to the palace as an infant to stand in for Nalia, who was squirreled away into hiding to avoid a dire prophecy.  Now that the danger seems to be past, Nalia is to be brought home and Sinda must go.  With a scant handful of coins and the clothes on her back, Sinda is sent to live with her father’s sister, Varil, a cold woman who is both impatient and resentful of Sindra’s ineptness at common tasks and her striking similarity to her mother, a woman Varil detested and blamed for her brother’s death. 

Sindra’s stability is rocked once again when her anger and frustration bring out dangerous latent magic in her.  She flees back to the capitol city where an eccentric wizardess, Philantha, takes her in and agrees to train her.  With her best friend Kiernan, who is determined to stand by her whether she is princess or peasant, Sinda uncovers a mysterious third girl in the princess triangle.  The court wizardess, Melaina, secretly replaced the true princess with her own daughter, hoping to reclaim the throne she believes was stolen from her ancestors.  With another terrible prophecy hanging over her head, Sinda must find the true Nalia and bring her home before Melaina’s daughter, Orianne, is crowned. 

In the tradition of Beauty and Ella Enchanted, yet far more sophisticated, this book is a delightful pleasure that nevertheless focuses on themes such as loyalty, family, forgiveness, identity and self-acceptance, and a young woman’s growth into independence.  While it does create a setting outside our modern-day natural realm that will deter some teens, and the plot is convoluted, teens who enjoy fantasy will devour this book.  All of fantasy’s favorite stock characters are brought into play, yet the author skillfully takes common components of a traditional tale and consistently does surprising things with them, making the story both the best of traditional stories and a novel escape from them. 

As I mention below, the cover impelled me to read this book.  Although it is a subgenre I tend to be fond of, I was not particularly anxious to immerse myself in a fantasy – they do tend to take more focus and brain power than contemporary realistic fiction.  The novel caught me up in it right away, and was both easy to read and easy to imagine.  While the plot was quite convoluted and sometimes a little confusing for a time, the characters were all unique enough that I never confused them – quite a feat when three imposter princesses that all share the same name are running around. 

The author captured the feel and tone of some of today’s most-loved fantasies like Ella, the Stravaganza books, and Shannon Hale’s writings, but never developed the pompous, often tiresome atmosphere that high fantasy can sometimes take.  The story was unique, with plot twists I did not anticipate, and the many adventures of Sinda and Kiernon were colorful and varied without growing stale, leading to a natural and satisfying conclusion that did not feel forced or contrived.  While the book was not gritty, profane, or angsty, it did still deal with issues of contemporary teens: Sinda struggled with her own identity, felt isolated, dealt with family authority that did not understand her and seemed harsh, agonized over the yesses and no’s of a first love, and went on to save a kingdom.  Appealing mainly to girls as the title will probably send many teen boys running for cover, False Princess will nevertheless find a happy home among girls coming from their childhood princess crazes.


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