The False Princess by Eilis O'Neal
Talk about traumatizing. Grow up thinking you're one thing then being told you're another while being forced from your home and replaced by the "real" you . . . Yeah, I'd be a little upset. The False Princess gives us just such a situation with the unfortunate was-a-princess-but-not-really Sinda.
In what could have easily been a run-of-the-mill princess story, O'Neal steps it up a notch about halfway in with a twist and some added development. I'm not talking about the not-a-princess thing. That happened right at the beginning. Instead of sticking with a rather cut-and-dry plot, the author changes things up, thus adding depth and complexity to the characters and the entire plot.
While I appreciated the surprising plot, the writing felt like it needed a little bit more development. The pace was on the slow side and I found myself skimming large chunks of Sinda's thoughts. Explaining events or situations the reader should—and probably did—figure out on their own made the narrative cumbersome.
Another area that wasn't fully developed was the magic system in the book. In any fantasy world there is generally a) magic, b) its own mythology and hierarchy of gods, or c) both. It is vastly important to create a clear and solid system for those elements because everything in this world affects how people act and interact within their own community and society as a whole. People who possess magic act differently than someone who lives in a world where magic doesn't exist. Cultures that worship multiple gods will work differently than those that are atheist.
The False Princess is that this world has magic and deities, but we're never given a clear understanding of how that works. Yes, there are oracles who prophecy future events, but where do they get their power? Was there only one in the whole world? How were they chosen?
Even more important, who is this "Nameless God" mentioned throughout the book but never given any other thought? You can't offer such a tantalizingly named deity without giving us more. Why is he nameless? Does someone know his name? Do the other cultures pray to the same God? The fact that the Nameless God was mentioned but didn't do anything in the book left me more than a little disappointed.
I would have to say the book's biggest flaw is moralizing, with the overdone symbolism of Sinda going from princess to commoner, and being mistreated by the crown throughout. The idea of royalty not caring for the common man has been done before. Quite a lot, actually, and done very well. In The False Princess, it comes across forced and a little heavy-handed. As a reader, I want a good story, not a lesson in ethics.
All that said, it's a nice book and one that I'd recommend for a light read. Since this is a debut, I hope the author's next work comes out a bit deeper and more polished.
PS Am I the only one who keeps reading the main character's name as Simba? Rawr.
PSS Yes, I do like hyphens.
PSSS And mythology. LOVE me some mythology. There's so much fun to be had playing around with gods and mortals. Just imagine the possibilities. Hence, my disappointment.