Plot: Himiko is the only daughter of the Matsu clan’s chieftain. She dreams of being a hunter like her beloved brother Aki but a bad fall from the village’s sacred tree sets her on a new path. She begins training with her tribe’s shaman. But before she can be acknowledged as a shaman in her own right, she must overcome her father’s fears and prejudices as well as the feelings of inadequacy caused by her infirmity.
This review is based on an ARC provided by Netgalley.
Spirit’s Princess is Friesner’s third princess duology. She previously wrote about Helen of Troy (Nobody’s Princess and Nobody’s Prize, which sadly I read before starting this blog) and Nefertiti (Sphinx’s Princess and Sphinx’s Queen). This time she tells the story of one of Japan’s greatest queens, one probably not as well known to Western audiences.
Like with Friesner’s Nefertiti series, I could see just how much research went into writing this novel. There is very little known about Himiko’s early life as the only written records that exist are from the Chinese, after she became Queen. But the childhood that Friesner imagines is very plausible and interesting. She paints a vivid picture of the lives and beliefs of the Yayoi period of Japan (if you’re hoping for samurai or ninja, I have to warn you that they don’t exist yet).
Himiko is a fascinating queen, one who unified Japan and brought peace to its people. But when the story starts, she is only a stubborn, energetic 7-year-old. She blames the spirits and those around her for all the bad things in her life. It was wonderful watching her come into her own. She learns to take responsibility for her own actions and, more importantly, how to listen to the people and nature around her. By the end, she has all the qualities to make her a wonderful healer and shaman. I really felt her frustration at having to deny her skills because of her father’s fears.
This isn’t a very action-packed story. It’s about Himiko’s personnal spiritual development. As a result there is a lot of internal monologue and few battles and chase scenes. This may not appeal to all readers but Friesner does it well; I wasn’t bored for a moment. If I had one complaint it is actually that I often felt distanced from the action and the tragedy that was in the book. We hear stories about hunts and wars long after they have happened. Most characters who die do so “off screen”. This unfortunately takes some of the emotion out of the situations. I was never brought to tears though some terrible things happen.
There is also little romance. Himiko simply has more important things to worry about: her shaman training and her family. In the closing chapters, it is hinted that there will be some love to come in the second book though we know very little about the man in question at the moment. But who needs romance when they have a kindred spirit like Kaya, a girl as free and energetic as Himiko, and two wise and funny shaman mentors?
I highly recommend this book to fans of Japan, history and female rulers. Spirit’s Princess was released last week, on April 24th so go read it!