REVIEW: Spirit’s Princess by Esther Friesner
Dear Ms. Friesner,
I’ve never read any of your books but I’ve certainly heard of you. How could I not? Not only do you have a substantial backlist, you’ve had a long career. Recently, it seems like you’ve turned your attention towards YA retellings of mythological princesses. In this novel, you focus on Himiko, the shaman-queen of Yayoi era Japan.
Not much is known about the Yayoi period. My knowledge of Japanese history only goes back to the Heian era, and even the historical facts seemed to be obscured since most of what we know comes from outside sources (China, Korea) rather than directly from Japanese record. So in many ways, this is like fleshing out a myth. Unfortunately, that comes with some pitfalls.
Spirit’s Princess tells the story of Himiko, princess of her clan. The only girl among many brothers, Himiko wants nothing more than to become a hunter. But when an attempt to persuade her beloved older brother that she’s capable goes awry, any possibility of walking down that path is crushed.
But it turns out Himiko is destined for another path. She’s always been able to hear the voices of various spirits: tree, animal, rock, you name it. It’d be easy to dismiss these voices as the imaginings of an especially precocious child but as Himiko grows older, it becomes apparent it’s something else entirely.
She is destined to become a shaman. Unfortunately, the previous clan leader was a shaman herself and her rule left many scars, many of them inflicted upon Himiko’s father. And so Himiko must learn to become a shaman while keeping it from her father.
This book is structured differently from a lot of current YA. For one, Himiko spends a good chunk of the book extremely young. And she reads young, making all the impulsive and terrible decisions young children are prone to do. It isn’t until the latter half of the novel that she’s the “normal” age for a YA protagonist. I can see how this extended timeline would be necessary to set up the world and Himiko’s life, but it also causes the book to drag a bit. I couldn’t help but think that this is a rather long book for a plot in which not much happens.
Readers expecting action will be sorely disappointed. This is primarily an introspective novel. Himiko gives up her early childhood dream of becoming a hunter, only to choose another path that is soon barred to her. There’s some inter-clan conflict but not much is shown on-page. I suppose that’s to be expected since Himiko isn’t privy to many of those interactions and the book is told through her POV. On the other hand, since the historical Himiko is said to have risen to power amidst a civil war, I can see the events of this book laying the groundwork for that backdrop.
I’m sure many readers out there just groaned by what I implied. Yes, this is the first of a series, possibly a trilogy. I wish I had known that going in. Then I wouldn’t have wondered at the abrupt ending and set-up for what I assume is the confict for the next book.
What I’m most unsure of, however, is the historical basis for this novel. I know I said I don’t know much about the time period, and what information out there is murky and often taken from outsider viewpoints, but there were bits that I know are incorrect. For one, the names read particularly modern: Yuki, Kaya, etc. During the Yayoi period, the names would have been much longer and a little more bombastic in convention — including the name of the clan, etc. I realize this boils down to authorial choice. It is easier to remember shorter names, both for the author and the reader. But it doesn’t sit well with me to eschew accuracy like this. And if something simple like the names aren’t remotely accurate, how can I be sure the society is portrayed properly? It casts doubt on a lot of things.
I’m also not convinced about the magic system/religion. I believe Shinto was already established by this time period. It was never clear to me if the book’s presentation of spirits was meant to be equivalent to the kami of Shinto. I’m not sure if the book intended it to be a presentation of early Shinto or if it was meant to be something else entirely. Perhap an animist precursor?
I really wanted to like this book. It’s not often that a Japanese princess is picked as the focus for a retelling, let alone that princess being Himiko. But I was never entirely convinced of the setting, which could have been any “exotic” place save for the Japanese names, and the plot served almost entirely as set-up for Himiko’s burgeoning powers. It’s only been a week since I finished reading the book and already my memories of the details fade. Never a good sign. C