Review: “Spirit’s Princess” by Esther Friesner

Title: “Spirit’s Princess”

Author: Esther Friesner

Genre: YA, historical fiction

Publication Date: April 24, 2012 (expected)

Summary: Himiko the beloved daughter of a chieftain in third century Japan has always been special. The day she was born there was a devastating earthquake, and the tribe’s shamaness had an amazing vision revealing the young girl’s future—one day this privileged child will be the spiritual and tribal leader over all of the tribes. Book One revolves around the events of Himiko’s early teen years—her shaman lessons, friendships, contact with other tribes, and journey to save her family after a series of tragic events.

☆: 1/5 – don’t waste your time. SERIOUSLY.

Review: I grit my teeth and got through about 60 pages before I threw in the towel. Here’s where I was more or less screaming “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG” at the book:

1. Setting: The period in which this is set (mid-Yayoi Era – 300BCE to 300CE) has the land that Himiko/Pimiko (if she existed) known as the kingdom of Wa (Chinese) or Yamataikoku (precursor to the Yamato nation, which was precursor to the various States that became the Warring States, which was precursor to a reunified Japan under the Shogunate several hundred years later). No mention of this is made in the book whatsoever from the get-go. Were they clannish? Yes. But they also had a royal court system, through which Himiko rose to power. Not known is much about her, but she would have also been raised within the royal complex or an aristocratic family in order to marry into the royal family. Friesner has them as a nomadish clan, not unlike Native Americans. WRONG. We know from the one large burial record (Chopstick Mound Grave in what’s now Nara, Japan), that the Yamataikoku most likely existed in southern Japan – the Kinki area, where Kyushu is today, and that there was a royal court there with roots – not a roaming one.

2. Names: Friesner used names that are more acquainted with modern (modern meaning Meiji Era/1868 onward) Japanese names. Himiko, if she really existed at all, would have family members with names like Yamatohime-no-mikoto (who might have actually been related to Himiko through one of three Shaman families that rose to power within Yamataikoku during the Yayoi era), not simply “Masa” or “Aki”. WRONG. Had this been a modern retelling, I could probably forgive it. But this is calling itself YA historical fiction. Nope.

3. Himiko herself: Would have been raised and reared as a proper lady, and watched constantly if she was indeed born into the royal family of Yamataikoku and did not marry into it, to ensure that she would marry and produce heirs. No tree climbing or hunting for her, and she would have been more docile, Shaman Queen or not, with the male members of her family. Her clothes would have been nicer, not the dirty tunics as mentioned by this Himiko’s POV in chapter one, and she would have gotten in HUGE trouble for trashing any one of her outfits because they were simply so expensive and so labor intensive to make. However, her mother seems to disregard this entirely after she finds Himiko hurt after falling out of the Grandfather tree.

I understand wanting to use a legend to write your book, but for the love of everything holy, PLEASE DO YOUR RESEARCH FIRST. Or at least put a forward/afterword about how your subject might never have existed at all.

You know who did this correctly?  Katherine Longshore in “Gilt” – she plainly discloses as an afterword what liberties she took as opposed to what we know happened in the actual Tudor/Howard court, as well as the possibilities of what might have happened, or where historical evidence was weak and she decided to put her own spin on that. Now that’s how to do it right.

However, Friesner did not disclose any of this.

With Freisner’s previous subjects in her previous books, we had more concrete proof that they existed, so she had more to work with. I’ve taken this into account.  She took a big risk here. While I admire that, it felt like she didn’t do the work needed to balance that risk out. It feels a bit like exploitation, as even today Himiko is taught in the Japanese school curriculum as has been long-revered as an idol of rule in times of strife. A 2008 study says that in elementary schools across Japan, she has been recognized by over 90% of all students, so Himiko is kind of a big deal. Everyone knows about her, even in the most basic of terms there.

However, I know that because of the fact that there’s so much speculation and so little concrete first-hand evidence (most of the evidence we do have that’s from the actual time period is from China, and then several hundred years later, second-hand accounts from the Japanese “Nihon Shoki”, “Kojiki”, and to a far lesser extent, the “Manyoshu” documents), that this is ripe for retellings and creative works within any genre, not just YA, that plays with speculative fiction and historical fiction. And usually, I’m fine with that. But it was extremely obvious that only the most basic research (Himiko, if she existed, became the Shaman Queen of Japan at the time) was put into this. It was half-assed, and it makes me angry.

So, one star. While I’m all for retellings, this one made me ill because of the lack of obvious respect to a revered cultural figure. I can understand why people enjoyed this who don’t really know the history behind the figure that is Himiko – Friesner’s style is very easy to read, and generally sets a good MG/young YA tone. But I urge you guys to spend your time on “Gilt” or some other better researched, better disclosed YA historical/speculative fiction book for the year, as this one just frankly doesn’t deserve anyone’s time.


3 thoughts on “Review: “Spirit’s Princess” by Esther Friesner

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! « birth of a new witch.

    • You should definitely pass on this one. It was such a half-assed job that it took me everything not to break out into four letter words. It was definitely that bad.

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