Once a Princess by Sherwood Smith is the first of two novels in the rather laboriously named Sasharia en Garde! duology. I thought at first that this was from Net Galley, but now I’m beginning to think it might have been a kindle freebie on Amazon. I’m not familiar with the author – this is, as far as I know, the first of Smith’s books I’ve read, (though I’ve heard the name more than once recently…) but according to the author’s website, Shasharia en Garde! is actually one story split into two parts, set in Sartorias-deles, a world featured in many of the author’s other works. This background information makes a lot of sense of some points that bothered me about Once a Princess.
But we’ll get to that part in a bit.
Sasharia Zhavalieshin is your regular twenty-something woman waitressing her way through grad school. Except for the small fact that she’s actually a princess. From another world. And did I mention the magic?
In the fifteen years since Princess Sun ‘Atanial’ Zhavalieshin of Khanerenth and her young daughter fell through the World Gate from the magical land of Sartorias-deles into Sun’s native Earth, mother and daughter have managed to build a relatively normal, if somewhat paranoid, life for themselves. Normal, that is, until an unwelcome blast from the past arrives on both Sash and Sun’s doorsteps in the form of mages from Khanerenth, bringing unwelcome news.
Sun’s paranoia is quickly proven correct – you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you – when one of those mages tricks his way into Sash’s flat and drags her unwilling self back through the World Gate into Sartorias-deles. Where a host of enemy guards are waiting for them; apparently King Canardan Merindar, current ruler of Khanerenth and Sash’s evil uncle, is well aware of the rebellion’s plot to use the Zhavalieshin princesses as figureheads for civil war, and has plans of his own for the pair of them.
While Sash and some unlikely allies do their best to stay one foot ahead of Canardan’s soldiers, Sun’s attempted rescue falls completely flat and she’s soon at the apparently-genuine mercy of the evil King. Are Sash’s new friends as trustworthy as they seem? What is Canardan up to?
Will I ever figure out how to pronounce the characters’ last names?
Overall, this was an enjoyable high-fantasy romp, with interesting characters and a detailed setting. Swordfighting, magic, dashing pirates, lost royalty, conspiracies galore… what more could a girl ask for? The heroes are flawed and read like real people, and even the bad guys have their good points. Not to mention bucketloads of charm.
But it does have a few problems. The beginning of the book is the typical ‘trying so hard to be mysterious and exciting and catch your attention’ that makes me sigh and roll my eyes, and trying to follow all of the cryptic action was less than a barrel of laughs. The author has apparently written a lot of other stories based in the same world, and it shows – it felt like there was little explanation of the world and culture, let alone the myriad characters mentioned, and it took me a while to keep everything straight. I still had trouble with the legion of minor characters.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve read a lot of fantasy – or perhaps I’m Just That Damn Good – I predicted the Shocking!Plot!Twist!Sekkrit the first time it was even slightly mentioned, and it was almost disappointing to be proved right. And I usually love being right. But it felt far too obvious, with too many ‘subtle hints’ that felt like they added nothing to the story except to broadcast clues and make it All Make Sense Later.
As I mentioned in the intro, apparently Once a Princess and its ‘sequel’, Twice a Prince, are actually one book split into two halves. What purpose besides profit that was for, I can’t imagine, as Once a Princess doesn’t stand terribly well on its own. While time passes during the book, and Things Happen, it didn’t really feel like the plot was getting anywhere – by the end of Once a Princess, Sash is still on the run, Sun is still in the clutches of Canardan, and Sash’s father is still Missing, Presumed Dead. Which is where things were in about chapter four, except we’ve met a whole lot of minor characters and most of them have been shunted off-stage again.
Another thing that really bothered me was the myriad viewpoints. Sash was the story’s main viewpoint, told in first person, but we also had POV chapters from Sun, the evil War Commander Whose Name I Can’t Remember, Some Random Teenager Who’s Friends With The War Commander’s Nephew, the dashing pirate Zathdar… and probably some other people I’m forgetting. The contrast between Sash’s first-person and everyone else’s third-person was jarring, and quite frankly I’m not sure why we needed so many points of view. Or maybe that’s just me not caring about what’s happening with The Evil War Commander and associates.
And, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, the cover isn’t very pretty. At least my copy was on my kindle, so I didn’t really see it.
So, (somewhat more numerous than I thought) issues above aside, I quite enjoyed this story. At least until I got to the very abrupt ending, considered paying $5 (ebook price on Amazon; paperback is $12) to read the second half of the book, and balked. It’s a fairly traditional fantasy/YA romance (no sexy times or naughty parts), and if you actually have both parts of the story from the start it might be a smoother read. I don’t know that it’s worth $10 ($25 in paperback) to read the whole story. $5 for the whole thing would be more reasonable than $5 for each half, especially when you’re getting half a story at best.
Because of the number of issues and caveats I’ve had to give, and the price-point, I can’t quite bring myself to tag this as a ‘recommended read’, but if pirates and alternate world YA fantasy is your thing, go for it. Particularly if you can find it cheap or free somewhere.