Deception's Pawn is the sequel to Deception's Princess, a novel about life in Ireland during the Iron Age. In this novel we learn what becomes of Lady Maeve, after she insists she be allowed to determine her own destiny.
Maeve, princess of Connacht, daughter of the High King, Lord Eochu Feidlech, is now living in the house of Dun Beithe as a fosterling, under the watchful eye of Lady Lassaire. Maeve has come to Dun Beithe to start a new life and to find her missing kestrel. Lady Maeve's first taste of self-reliance had come when she had saved her father's bard, Devnet from Lord Morann's schemes.
The novel opens the morning after the welcoming feast hosted by Lord Artegal and Lady Lassaire. Maeve is sharing a chamber with three other girls, blonde Gormlaith who has lived at Dun Beithe for the past eleven years, red head Ula and Dairine. Also at Dun Beithe is Kian, the young man who holds Maeve's beloved kestrel, Ea.
On this morning, Devnet is returning to the High King along with Fechin, her father's charioteer. Lady Maeve says her goodbyes but does not weep, something Gormlaith notices. At Dun Beithe Maeve feels included in contrast to her own home at Cruachan where people befriended her in order to obtain favours. When her embroidery lesson goes badly, Lady Lassaire assigns her eldest attendant, Lady Moriath, to give Maeve lessons privately. In an attempt to improve Maeve's embroidery, Lady Moriath questions Maeve about what she would like to embroider. Maeve tells her that she especially loves birds of prey and this leads Lady Moriath to show her the beautiful kestrel in a shed, not knowing that this is Ea, Maeve's kestrel. When Lord Kian happens upon the two women he becomes concerned for the kestrel and has his mother rescind her request that Lady Moriath give Maeve private lessons. However Maeve artfully is able get Lord Artegal to order her lessons restored.
When Kian and Maeve meet again in the shed, Maeve insists she knows how to handle a sword. In exchange for proving this, she wins the right to have him help her improve her skill.Her first sword lesson is her last due to the difficulty of training in a long dress. Kian instead offers to teach her how to use a sling. The two meet frequently to take Ea out to hunt and to practice with the sling leading her fellow fosterlings and Lady Lassaire to suspect that she is romantically involved with Kian.
However, Maeve's life is about to change with the arrival of Lord Conchobar, king of the Ulaidh. Conchobar tells Maeve he has a message from her sister, Derbriu, that she is well and expecting her fifth child. Maeve asks him to be a messenger between them but learns that Derbriu has been in touch with the High King on many occasions. The High King felt he would lose Maeve if he told her about Derbriu and so ordered that no one was to speak of her.
During winter, Maeve intercedes for the slave girls at Dun Beithe by approaching Lord Artegal and asking that the warriors leave them alone. A second visitor to Dun Beithe, a former fosterling, Bryg, returns from Avallach, where she was taken to be healed. It is Bryg who will set Maeve on the path to her destiny of independence and queenship.
The Deception duology would have been better left as a single novel rather than continuing the story of Lady Maeve's struggle to be the mistress of her own destiny. It's a book where the middle section gets bogged down which is a shame because Friesner's Deception novels are an attempt to bring to life the fascinating story of Queen Maeve better known as Medh when she was a very young women. Medh was the warrior queen of Connacht who is thought to have had five husbands and numerous children. She followed her father as ruler of Connacht and ruled for sixty years. Like the women of her time, Queen Maeve was considered equal to any man. Women in Celtic Ireland were considered equal to men before the law; they could own property and shared in decisions concerning family and children. They could raise their own armies and they could actively participate in the court system that existed at this time. Women could not be forced to marry and marriages could be ended as they were contracts. Women could also become druids, warriors, priestesses and bards.
Unfortunately, the first one hundred and fifty pages tell of Lady Maeve's life at Dun Beithe as a fosterling and her relationship with Kian, Lord Artegal's son. The story then focuses on Lady Maeve's bullying, instigated by the return of Bryg, a fosterling who was sent away to be healed at Avallach, a druid healing center. When the bullying becomes fierce, Maeve decides to leave to search out her long lost Odran who she learns is recuperating from a serious illness. However, when she arrives at Avallach, her relationship with Odran does not go as planned. Living secretly with him does not bring the two closer together and when her presence is discovered, Maeve decides to return to her father's home. But the discovery that her father has called all the Lord's to Tara in order to question them regarding his missing daughter leads Maeve to travel there. Underneath all this is the beginnings of a plot to unseat her father, Lord Eochu by Lord Cairill and possibly the young king, Lord Conchobar, whose father Eochu killed. There is also a reluctant love triangle that never quite gets developed between Lord Kian and Lord Conchobar for Lady Maeve.
Friesner does give her readers a good sense of life in Iron Age Ireland. Families lived in fortified structures called ringforts which had circular ramparts that could be defended. Young highborn children were often sent to live with another lord's family who became that person's foster parents. Fostering was taken seriously and it would have been considered a serious matter for a high born child such as Lady Maeve to go missing. In fosterage women learned how to cook, sew weave and embroider just as Maeve did. The sons of kings were also sent to live with farmers so they could learn the conditions that poorer families lived under and what their needs were. Fosterlings often had a great love for the families who hosted them, as Maeve demonstrates in Deception's Pawn. Despite being bullied to the point where she felt she had to leave, Lady Maeve saves her father in a way that preserves Lord Artegal's reputation and does not lay blame. She has a genuine affection for this man and his family and even returns to set things right between her the other fosterlings.
The novel's climax takes place at Tara, which was considered by many to be the seat of the High King of Ireland. It was considered a sacred place and the entrance to the Otherworld. There are many monuments and earthen structures on the Hill of Tara including the Stone of Destiny and the Mound of the Hostages which dates to 2500BC and was used by kings to keep other lords until they submitted to the king's will. There are many other passages at Tara and it seems that Lady Maeve used one of these to convince her father and her fellow Celts that she had returned from the Otherworld after being taken by the Fair Folk. Unfortunately, Friesner doesn't really provide readers with enough background about Tara and the passageways for them to fully understand how Lady Maeve's plan would be convincing.
Like most of Friesner's novels, Deception's Pawn has a beautiful cover, one that would probably make the real Medh somewhat pleased; she looks bold and strong, but perhaps a bit too clean.A slingshot and a falcon would have been a good addition to the cover.
If you'd like to read more about Queen Maeve check out queenmaeve.org
Deception's Pawn by Esther Friesner
New York: Random House 2015