Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Spy Princess by Sherwood Smith, 2012


When twelve-year-old Lady Lilah decides to disguise herself and sneak out of the palace one night, she has more of an adventure than she expected – for she learns very quickly that the country is on the edge of revolution. When she sneaks back in, she learns something even more surprising: her older brother Peitar is one of the forces behind it all. The revolution happens before all of his plans are in place, and brings unexpected chaos and violence. Lilah and her friends, leaving their old lives behind, are determined to help however they can. But what can four kids do? Become spies, of course!

Lilah is a member of nobility and the king’s niece in the semi-magical, fictional kingdom of Sartorias-deles (which readers may or may not recognize from Sherwood Smith’s other book, including Crown Duel and Sartor – I, for the record, do not because I have not read them). However, her high position doesn't stop her from jumping to join the revolution of the people, who are tired of taxes and over-exploitation. The book is split into three sections that are basically the brewing rebellion, the rebellion itself, and the consequences of the rebellion. It's a pretty long book, so it's hard to summarize much more than that. Lets just say she has an older brother deeply embroiled in the whole mess, and she doesn’t just spend the whole time hiding away from the danger.

So first, I have to say that it didn't start out very promisingly. In essence, Lilah sneaks out of her castle dressed as a scruffy boy by the name of Larei for, apparently, the un-elaborated-on pressing desire to "see life outside the castle." Then, oops! She just happens to stumble across a group of kids (her age, of course) who not only are pumped about a revolution, they blab about it to her, this unnamed "boy" who they just met. "Larei," of course, goes, "Cool!" and promises to come back again.

My favorite scene, however, is when her older brother sees her out of his window, and comes to talk to her and explain how he is actually helping to lead the rebellion, he's sorry they've never been able to show their "true selves" to each other before this conversation, and he really thinks they can change (cheesy music here) the lives of everyone for the better. All this, but a bit more jumbled up. Then he asks Lilah, in essence, "wanna help?" And without even thinking about it, she goes, "Ooh, fun! Okay!"
Don’t get me wrong, I know nobles and even children can really care about a rebellion. It’s just that Lilah didn’t face any doubts about this, or about betraying her own uncle. To her it’s basically a game, and while she comes to realize it’s serious later on, she still never regrets or double thinks her allegiance to the sometimes dubious efforts to rid the country of its king.

Still, don’t think I hate the book. I really did have an enjoyable few hours reading it. The plot still interested me enough to keep reading, and I was rooting for a happy ending – but at the same time, I could sense deep down how everything was headed (I didn’t read ahead or anything, it was just the kind of book that has a predictable ending) so it seemed a bit . . . long. And rambling. And a teeny bit (or a lot) contrived. Right around the middle of the book, after the rebellion has started, I seriously had to ask myself what editor hadn’t chopped through the book a bit more. I mean, I kid you not. They go hide out for a while in a magical place where by some unexplained phenomena people can fly. And it’s just part of life there. It truly didn’t add anything to the story at all (basically, some of the houses they visited were up high), and it left me thinking that a ten-year-old had outlined the story. 

I later learned that Sherwood Smith wrote The Spy Princess when she was young, and after publishing many other books set in Sartorias-deles, she decided to publish this one. It’s very impressive for such an early endeavor, but it certainly smells like an early attempt. A very, very impressive early attempt that’s actually not that bad. But compared to the big leagues, it has some major drag in enough parts that you’ll be rolling your eyes once or twice. I’d say give it to younger readers for some of the (not really that plentiful) flights of fancy that is really best geared to ten-year-olds, except for the fact that it’s a revolution and – ahem - I’ll just point out the French Revolution and say revolutions aren’t exactly kid-friendly. It’s not gory, and bad things are usually viewed after the fact, but still too heavy for the same age group who delights in main characters getting the ability to fly. Thus the problem with this book.

All in all? It’s a fine book that I read in a few hours (it’s got some heft to it at 400 pages, though, so slow readers might want to steer clear altogether), had some fun with, and as soon as I finish reviewing I’m positive I’ll forget it. I say read it, but go in looking for a scrape-the-surface read, the kind you look for when you really don’t want any more Hemingway-esque books. It’s the kind of book that people who like rebellions or empowered girl protagonists are going to like, but it’s not going to offer anything revolutionary (pun not int – okay, yes, that pun was intended).

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