Thursday, May 29, 2014

Deception's Princess by Esther Friesner

Set in Ireland (Eriu) during the Iron Age, Deception's Princess tells the story of Maeve, daughter of the King of Connacht. Eleven year old Maeve is the youngest of the King Eochu's six daughters and high-spirited.

Maeve lives within the ringfort of Cruachan, with her parents, Lady Clithfinn, King Eochu and her sisters, Derbriu, Clothru, Mugain, and twins Eithne and Eile. The stone entryway to Cruachan is framed with the severed heads of warriors who had fallen in battle to the king. The most recent trophy is the head of the High King of Eriu, Fachtna Fathach, who betrayed King Eochu and paid the price with his life.

Now that her father is High King, life changes dramatically for Maeve and her sisters. Her sisters are sent out to fosterage, a custom where highborn children are sent into other homes to learn skills that will prepare them for life as adults. However, Maeve is not sent because she is King Eochu's most favoured daughter. This came about becuase of what happened when she was a mere five years old. At that young age, Maeve demonstrated her courage and boldness by going out and cutting off the tail of her father's largest black bull, Dubh. King Eochu considers Maeve to be the son he does not have and  he decides to keep her at home.

Being left at home however, causes Maeve to despair. In her loneliness she takes long walks throughout the countryside. During one of these walks, she is saved from a wolf by Kelan, a fosterling boy at Cruachan. Soon Kelan and Maeve form a friendship that sees Kelan reluctantly agree to teach Maeve the art of sword fighting and other warrior skills. However, Maeve's skill is discovered when she is forced to defend herself during an attack by a wolfhound. Instead of being proud of her, King Eochu's is enraged that someone taught his daughter to be like a man. Several days later,  Kelan is murdered in a challenge by one of her father's men, Cailte.

Shortly after this, a druid priest Master Iobar and his son Odran arrive at Cruachan. Druid priests were to be given great respect and treated well. So when they arrive at the ringfort, King Eochu welcomes them with great honour.

Odran is a strange young man who keeps a fox around his neck and a stoat (a weasel) hidden in his clothing. Maeve discovers that Odran is a sensitive kind boy who loves animals and who wishes to care for them. But Odran does not get along with his father. Maeve and Odran develop a secret friendship that sees Odran teach Maeve how to care for animals. One of those animals turns out to be a kestrel whom they name Ea.

However, their friendship is not to last as Odran's father, Master Iobar, attempts to betroth Princess Maeve to Odran, against both Maeve and the King's wishes. From this point on, Maeve's life rapidly changes. Her mother gives birth to triplet boys, who will now inherit King Eochu's land, making Maeve a dead end to the high seat of Connacht. But in a ploy to remove King Eochu, one of his enemies, Lord Morann imprisons the king's bard, Devnet, and requests Maeve to be sent as a fosterling to Fir Domnann,  in exchange for the life of the bard.  King Eochu suspects that Morann's true intentions are to marry Maeve to Conchobar, the surviving son of Fachtna Fathach, in the hopes that they can gain lordship over Connacht.

Determined to meet Morann before he arrives at Cruachan, Maeve secretly leaves the ringfort. She wants to meet him on her terms and secure the Devnet's release without giving herself up. Eventually she does meet up with one group of her father's men who have been sent to find her. She also discover's Morann's camp. Can Maeve save herself and her father's rule, despite the terrible secret she's uncovered?

For historical fiction fans, Friesner has crafted another interesting and unique novel that is in her own words a mashup of myth and fiction. There was no Princess Maeve of Ireland, but there were undoubtedly strong, capable young women in Iron Age Ireland.

It`s a challenge designing a cover that is both appealing and accurate for teen historical fiction. The model on the cover of Deception`s Princess, with her mass of wavy, red hair and the style of dress, is reminiscent of Merida from the animated movie, Brave. While the cover for Deception's Princess is quite attractive, it is not historically accurate for Iron Age (Celtic) Ireland. Men commonly wore a tunic and trousers, while women wore dresses or long tunics fastened with brooches, not the more medieval dress pictured on the book jacket. As Friesner mentions throughout the novel, important members of tribes often wore torcs (torques) made of gold, silver or iron which the cover does not show.

Nevertheless,  Deception's Princess succeeds as a historical novel because it gives readers a good idea of family life and how society was structured in Ireland during the Iron Age.Not much is known about the Iron Age in Ireland but despite this, Friesner creates a believable setting for her story. Ireland was never invaded by the Romans and so much of its historical record begins with the coming of Christianity.  For example, little is known about the druid priests and their actual rituals in Ireland except that they had a high social status and that they could call down curses upon both kings and common folk alike. During the Iron Age, the people of Ireland were organized into clans but there was no real ruler over all of Ireland. Farming and hunting were the primary means of survival and wealthy men owned many head of cattle and also horses. Bards who sang of the events in the lives of these people, were highly esteemed. Friesner portrays all of this, giving her readers a strong sense of the Iron Age period. The map of Ireland at the front of the novel helps readers understand the geography of the setting and at the back of the novel is an interesting guide to pronouncing the different Celtic names.

The unusual time period alone makes Deception`s Princess an intriguing tale that is furthered by Friesner`s creation of a well developed female protagonist and several strong supporting characters. Maeve is physically capable, kind-hearted, brave and intelligent. She's also impulsive and a bit self-absorbed at the beginning of the novel. She doesn't want to be a fosterling. She doesn`t want to be married. However as a favoured daughter, she accepts (although reluctantly at first) that she will be married to a warrior from another tribe, cementing his allegiance to her father. As Maeve matures, she comes to see this as practical and necessary.

It was good to see the author develop her character in a way that was probably realistic for the time period. There is a tendency in modern historical novels to portray young women as going against the gender norm of their culture and time period. While this appeals to modern readers, it is not always historically accurate and the sense of the era is then lost. This doesn't happen in Deception's Princess. For example,  even though Maeve goes against Master Iobar when he tries to marry her to his son, she does so in a way that is entirely plausible. She couches her refusal in terms of her personal responsibility towards her father, the High King. The saving grace for Friesner is that very little is known about Iron Age Ireland, allowing for some historical license and the blending of myth and fiction.

Although the novel drags a bit in the middle section, when Maeve and Odran are involved in their work to save injured animals, readers are rewarded with an interesting and very satisfying conclusion.

As with her other novels, Friesner plans a sequel, to be titled Deception's Prize. Look for the return of Odran and more about her three younger brothers,Bres, Nar and Lothar who now stand to "inherit the lordship of his lands".

Book Details:
Deception's Princess by Esther Friesner
New York: Random House    2014
324 pp.

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