Review of The Princess Spy by Melanie Dickerson

   A few weeks ago I won a book from Deborah, and when it came in the mail I read it. Now some books are so bad you never talk about them, and some are so good that once you start talking about them you never stop, and some you should talk about to explain what was good and what wasn’t and why. And as this book was a gift, perhaps I owe some people — the authour at least — my thoughts, since nobody got any monetary gain from me getting the book.

   It turned out more romantic than I’d first thought (there wasn’t even a knight anywhere on the cover, and though you can’t judge a book by its cover, the cover usually provides some hint about what’s inside), which I wasn’t prepared for, so that threw my expectations a little off. But that’s partly my own fault for not reading about the book first. As far as the romance went, it wasn’t too bad. I am awfully snarky about romances even in real life (at least one person has called me, and I quote, “a salty old maid,” even though I’m too young for the old maid part to be proven), so for me to give a romance my full approval is very rare. I didn’t this one. Partly that was because I have a quarrel with people falling in love because of looks, and being all about kissing each other (though the part where Colin lost his memory and remembered kissing her when he hadn’t was funny). But I did like that most of it, on Colin’s side, was because she was surprisingly capable and brave. And I liked on Margaretha’s side that though she was protecting him originally, he was able to pay that debt by the end. Otherwise it seemed a bit shallow. Or maybe being raised on the really great romances has ruined me for ordinary things.

   I didn’t like the villain one bit, by which I mean he wasn’t well done. Villains are (usually) just as human as the protagonists are, and setting them up like a shop-sign that says “I am Evil! Ahahahaha!” is no way to provide the kind of opposition to the good folks’ goals that a reader can take seriously. I knew who the villain was as soon as the authour started describing his chaperone (a kind of hat in this case), and he never developed beyond that. I’m almost as picky about antagonists as I am about romance, and I like them to have a little depth, a good reason for being evil, or at least a decent explanation as to how they got that way.

   On the historical side of things, well, I do sometimes go a bit crazy with detail. It helps that one of my best friends in the SCA, her persona is in that very century, so I know a thing or two about it that casual research won’t discover. For the most part, the authour had done a good deal of research. (And being the dabbler in dyes that I am, I could tell you what combinations of plants and conditions in the pot would result in that spotty green and yellow that poor Colin had to wear. Only I don’t know why she didn’t overdye it with something else, as that usually helps.) I only noticed two big things, besides the girl’s dress on the cover, which is not historically accurate for any period I know of, but you can not judge a book by its cover, so that doesn’t count. One was that “humour” in that period meant one of the four elements said to control the human body, being phlegm (so hard to spell), blood, black bile, and yellow bile. Someone with too much of one of these was said to be humourous. But Margaretha calls Colin humourous and means that he’s being funny. The other was that, though the authour knows the difference between a cotehardie, a kirtle, and a sideless gown, she mentioned in the same chapter in which she displayed this knowledge that the middle and lower-class folk all wore drab-coloured clothing. That is one of the most common myths about the Middle Ages, and one very easily refuted. Given the depth of her knowledge in so many other areas, I was a bit surprised that she missed two such obvious anachronisms. But then I’m probably the pickiest audience she gets in that area, so. . . take that for what it’s worth.

   I’d probably give it about 3/5 stars, with the caveat that it’s not quite my favourite kind of tea. It had its funny spots, such as when the healer told Colin “Trink langsamer” (“drink slowly”, in German) and he downed the cup in two gulps, and its spots where the characters started to show some growth, but between the really flat villain and the romance being one-half the story’s focus, it lost quite a bit of esteem in my eyes. (And her saying all the common folk wore boring colours still bothers me. . .)
   Funny side note: my sister, who’s far more romantic than I am when it comes to kissing and couples, and couples kissing, didn’t get past page 28 because she said it was too predictable, and when cross-questioned, predicted the end with decent accuracy. I’m not sure what’s up with that.
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About Nolie Alcarturiel

Christian, student of Philosophy, writer, SCAdian. Crazy cat lady who likes to keep cats and birds at the same time, and who's too young to be called an old cat lady. Medievalist. Creative Writing major, Philosophy minor.
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4 Responses to Review of The Princess Spy by Melanie Dickerson

  1. How do you think.The drab clothing, myth started.?

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    • noliealcarturiel says:

      One lady mentioned having read some sumptuary laws which prevented anyone of a certain class or lower wearing a colour that’s not a natural sheep colour. This, however does not prove that therefore nobody did. As a matter of fact, sumptuary laws were not enforced very regularly. All that you can know for certain from a sumptuary law is that someone was doing what it forbade, or it wouldn’t need to be invented to forbid it. Thus we have laws saying the lower classes can’t wear bright colours, but no laws saying (in the words of another lady who replied to my question) you can’t wear a patten on your head, because nobody ever did. There’s some of the evidence (besides pictorial and some surviving fragments from later period) that commoners were wearing good colours.
      Another lady said: “I think these laws might be the point where the myth about drab clothing started. I remember having learned about them in history class. Being a good kid growing up in modern time it had not occured to me, that these laws would not have been heeded or only apply to a locally very restricted area.” So it’s possible that well-intentioned schoolteachers who hadn’t done any primary research, read the textbook that mentioned these laws, and assumed the laws were duly enforced and observed, and so a generation was taught that it was against the law for commoners to wear anything not dull and ugly, and then the next generation learned that commoners never wore anything pretty, and so on.

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