Nobody’s Princess

Nobody’s PrincessBy Esther Friesner [LibraryThingAmazon]

Spartan Princess Helen is a pretty girl—maybe the prettiest girl in the world. But what she really wants is to have the power to choose her own destiny, and being beautiful can’t give her that. So she hatches a plan to learn to fight like her older brothers, and as she grows older, she also grows more stubborn—and smarter. But as she grows older, the prospect of adulthood, marriage, and taking over the throne of Sparta draw closer. Helen knows she wants adventure before she takes on her responsibilities…but how can a princess escape her duties for long enough to find it?

I really liked Nobody’s Princess. But it’s worth noting that, while I read a few myths back in middle school, I am hardly a classicist. Those looking for mythological purism would probably not like this book much at all.

But, well… That’s sort of why I like it. Jessica has mentioned the problem with mythological retellings that don’t reclaim characters and storylines, and I’m right there with her. I don’t want to read a story about how Helen was so very beautiful that she gets blamed for the Trojan War—and is going to end up a prize for the victor. And Nobody’s Princess is not that story. Instead, it’s the story of Helen as a Bronze Age feminist, who wants to be in charge of her future and respected for her abilities. So while it may mangle mythology a little bit (judging by the smoke that poured out of Jess’s ears when I described it to her…), it’s still a story I can get behind.

There are several elements of the book in particular that I liked. First off, while Helen starts off very pleased with herself for being so beautiful, she grows out of it—there are several points when it’s made clear to her that, while it’s a nice enough thing, she didn’t do anything special to earn being beautiful, or to deserve the privileges it gets her. Realizing that helps Helen take pride in her other abilities. (Additionally, Helen spends much of the book in her gawky, awkward phase, and not so pretty at all; she doesn’t even believe the hints that are dropped that she will grow up to be stunning.)

Second, despite the fact that the warriors Helen seeks to emulate are almost exclusively male, and thus it would be easy for her to have only male mentors, the book manages to present her with both female mentors and a good female friend—another sign of the book’s feminist leanings. So though Helen learns sword work from Glaucus, her brothers’ (male) teacher, she learns to hunt and track from her mother, she learns to ride from a female huntress named Atalanta,and she befriends Eunike, the young Oracle of Delphi.

With that said, while the politics of book are fantastic (and rarely delve into being preachy—though they are blatant, but I think that’s due to the writer’s attempt to make them clear and easy for young female readers to embrace), the story itself isn’t without problems. While the book is great with regards to most of Helen’s relationships, it never manages to quite reach that level with her twin sister, Clytemnestra. It does illustrate how frustrating it is for Clytemnestra to constantly be overlooked due to Helen’s prettiness, but never really resolves the tension that causes between them. And when Clytemnestra is afraid of her impending wedding, Helen cares about her and tries to help her—but the plot quickly moves away from that quickly, and Helen seems to forget about it entirely.

The book is also a little oddly placed; it has less of a plot and is more a series of events needed to establish Helen and move her to where she is on the last page—I presume in order to get to the sequel, which I suspect will be a more cohesive story. And the writing is also fairly simple; the book is listed as YA/teen, but reads as something aimed at a younger crowd to me.

However, despite its flaws, the book is engaging and Helen is an enjoyable protagonist. I look forward to her future adventures (however inconsistent with traditional mythology they may be!), and can’t wait to see how Friesner will eventually handle the Trojan War. (Incidentally, my copy has a long note from Friesner at the end, which is worth reading; it explains a lot about why she made the choices she did with Helen, and may even help satisfy the purists out there.) So obviously, I plan to pick up the sequel, and Nobody’s Princess earns a solid four cupcakes.

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    2 Responses to “Nobody’s Princess”

    1. Jessica says:

      I would be less annoyed if girls in the middle school hadn’t been citing it as a primary source for their Greek history projects. No! That is not correct!

      Other than that, it sounds good!

    2. Rebecca says:

      Well, it is written in the first person, so I can see how that would be confusing? For fifth-graders? Maybe?

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