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Monday, August 04, 2014

Book Review: The Decoy Princess by Dawn Cook

Okay, so the first book I will talk about is  The Decoy Princess by Dawn Cook.  Please be warned that there are some spoilers.  It's also more incoherent than I'd like.  I've apparently forgotten how to blog.  Hopefully, I'll get better with practice.

The book was written in 2005 (the sequel was written in 2006) but there's something about the tone and style that feels a little older.  It reminds me of the books I read as a kid (most of which had been published in the late 70s or early 80s).  It gives me a pleasant nostalgic feeling.  Not that I have anything against more current books, mind you.  But I digress.

The Decoy Princess is a fantasy novel about a princess named Tess.  Tess is short for Contessa, which strikes me as a weird name for a Princess.  Doesn't that mean "Countess?"  Her name is "Princess Countess"?  Really?

Anyway, for the first twenty years of her life, Tess was raised as the crown princess.  Then things happen which lead to a very surprising revelation (Surprising for Tess, I mean, as she is not aware of the title of the book): Tess is not the real princess.  She is a decoy.  The real princess is off being raised by nuns in some Briar Rose type shit.  Things go to hell when the Princess's intended fiance turns out to be batshit insane and murders a bunch of people, including the King and Queen.  Tess escapes and goes off to try to find her mentor (the court Chancellor) and the hidden princess.  Adventure ensues.

I enjoyed the story for the most part.  Tess is a very appealing heroine.  I like that Ms. Cook doesn't go with the usual cliche of "Princess ends up lost and alone in the wide world and needs her ass saved by a roguish hero who can protect her and teach her the way the world works."  Blech.  Instead, Tess does very well on her own.  Tess does actually meet a handsome roguish love interest, but she meets him when she catches him cheating in a card game at a tavern.  She then subtly blackmails him into losing the game to her so that she has money for her quest. It's pretty great.

Tess's princessly education comes in handy a lot, actually.  She already knows how to ride and has some basic self defense skills.  But even the less practical skills get use.  For example, Tess uses diplomacy to talk her way onto a ship, where she offers her math skills to the Captain to help balance his books.  Even her shopping hobby ends up useful.  Tess knows how to spot quality merchandise and negotiate prices.

I remember being a little nervous about how Ms. Cook would handle the meeting between Tess and her counterpart.  The girls have reason to be tense around each other, but I really didn't want to see yet another rehash of "noble heroine clashes with awful bitch."  And at first, it seemed that was the way it was going: they start fighting immediately.  The Princess says some horrible things and Tess tries to beat the shit out of her.  But this, thankfully doesn't last long.  And the Princess is actually the first to apologize.  She's had her world torn out from under her, as well.  She's scared and confused, and she's jealous that Tess has all the poise, skill and training that she'd never had.  Tess also apologizes, and the girls are able to be friends.

The relationship between Tess and the Princess is the strongest and most interesting part of the story.  Sadly, they don't actually get to interact as much as I'd like.  (Plot reasons.)  They're sisters and interestingly compatible for all of their differences.

The biggest flaw of the book is the premise.  It simply does not make sense.  The king and queen decide that their baby daughter is in danger because of a prophecy.  They send her off and raise a decoy.  But they don't tell the decoy she's a decoy.  So she's raised with the reasonable expectation that she will one day rule the kingdom.  She's also raised with all the skills necessary to rule the kingdom.  The people of the kingdom, or at least the people of the capital city, have all become accustomed to this girl being the princess.

Honestly, the King and Queen basically created a potential supervillain.  If Tess were a different sort of person, she could well have decided to take over the kingdom in her own right.  It'd serve them right.

Ms. Cook also clearly wanted us to see the King and Queen as good people who really loved both daughters.  They explain that they actually hoped that the assassination attempts would have died down when the girls were still infants, and that they could bring both princesses home and raise them as sisters.

One problem with that though: the Princess's name?  Is also Contessa.  This is the real reason that Tess ends up snapping when she meets the princess.  She'd come to terms with being a decoy, but she hadn't realized that she didn't even have her own name.  (Her mentor explains that he'd actually named her Tess first, and the royal family named the baby princess Contessa to accommodate, but that really doesn't make sense either.  How long did the baby go without a name?)  How the hell were they intending to raise both girls with the same name?

That's not even getting into the fact that Tess was one of three decoy babies.  And the other two decoys didn't survive.  "We really do think of you as a daughter.  You're just our expendable daughter.  And we're not even going to give you the courtesy of telling you the truth."  The King and Queen are basically horrible people.  I was glad they got murdered.

The other major flaw to the book is that the magic system is not explained very well.  And there's a very confusing player/game dynamic involving Tess's mentor and the Prince's Captain of the Guard that really needs more explanation as well.  Especially since Tess will supposedly have a future role in this game as well.  This is apparently part of her happy ending.  I like the heroine, Ms. Cook.  I would like to actually understand her happy ending.

Despite these complaints, it was a decent book.  I enjoyed it.  There is a sequel, which I have mixed feelings about. But I'll blog about that another time.  :-)


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