Spirit’s Princess is the first of Esther M. Friesner’s Princesses of Myths I’ve read, and I chose it over the other options at the library because I haven’t read a fictional book based in Japan in ages. Shortly after checking this out I came to GoodReads to add it as a current read and glimpse at the reviews. I have to say, after completing this book, I’m interested in addressing some of the common critiques that made me nervous about this series. First, though, I will share my thoughts on the story and not the history.
Spirit’s Princess is a character-driven story, a chronicle. It’s a long-winded, 443-paged novel that could be written in 325 pages and retain its goodness. However, I don’t mind these traits. Many books sweep through so fast you don’t enjoy the character development or get truly zoned in to their mindset or the world they live in.
Himiko is a rambunctious seven-year-old at the beginning of the story doing what most little kids do at a young age: do a few stupid things in between long periods of normalness. Nine years pass in the story with narrative covering years seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, fourteen, and sixteen, though the eleventh and thirteenth years were brief. Do I want those years to pass in a paragraph like many books? Do I want those years blurring together? No to both. I appreciate the gradual approach to Himiko’s shaman lessons. The family issues leading to that life change add so much meaning than if the first half of the book was simply summarized and the story started when she began her training. I loved witnessing her transition to rambunctious yet overthinking to patient and wise as a sixteen-year-old. Yet despite such keenness she still lacks the freedom to serve as a shaman.
I love the subtle hints at the history, the symbolism and manner of speaking, the foreshadowing of the next book’s and the series’s ultimate plot. Unique to the this book though, I suspect, is the layering of family drama. They love and care for each other, yet are condescending. They’re not supportive. Many readers will find their own family weaved into one layer revealed in this story or another.
Himiko’s story is part myth (and from a writer’s perspective, a license for creativity and fantasy) and part history (from a reader’s perspective there is some expectation of historical accuracy).
The Chinese Wei Kingdom (220-265 AD) has the only history to Himiko, a shaman queen of Wa, Japan’s name at the time. She came to power after uniting clans that had warred for decades. This era of Japan is toward the end of the Yayoi Period, which had significant Chinese, Korean, and perhaps Central Asian influence. This means that by the time of the story’s setting, Japan had entrenched farming, class systems, loose government formed by clan allegiances led by warlords, refined art and clothing, wide use of bronze, and a distinct form of shamanism known as Shintoism.
In the story we have a hunter gatherer society, which is a Jomon Period trait that ended roughly around 300 B.C. At the same time we have rice farming, reverence for the smith and ceramic professions, and conversations about imports and sailing between the homeland and the Mirror Kingdom a.k.a. China. This trade was isolated and rarely heard of. These are all earlier Yayoi Period hints. Class systems are loose with only a chief’s family and the shaman as above others, though the clans that war have slaves. These traits fall between Jomon and Kofun (after Yayoi), so are probably Yayoi. While the pottery and weapons sound to be more than rudimentary and probably Yayoi, the descriptions of clothing as “tunics” and “dresses” with usually one option to wear on daily business despite being in a chief’s household sounds more like the Jomon attire. The form of shamanism in the story was generic with a respect toward spirits of the dead and concepts of astrologically based gods. Only the shaman’s respected nature spirits not assigned as clan guardians. This attitude is attributed to life in the Jomon Period.
Broadly speaking, the historical Himiko lived in 170-248 A.D. toward the end of the Yayoi Period that transitioned into Kofun culture, the start of the more iconic traditional Japan. Yet the Himiko in the story lived around 300 B.C. in a transition from the Jomon Period into the Yayoi Period.
Which also makes the book cover many centuries too advanced. The thatch buildings are accurate to 300 B.C. but the clothing came much later, even later than the historical Himiko’s time.
However, the historical idiosyncrasies don’t bother me. They are a good excuse to research and they are accurate, just to a different time than the story was supposed to be set. It still took me back in time and yet to a fantasy world with ambiance and wonder. A lot of books don’t do that for me. Here I had an explicit image in my mind what the land and the town (and the clothing, but not the people–physical descriptions were exceedingly rare) looked like. The length of the book meant that it revisited places enough to breed enough familiarity that I could walk there myself.
I’m intrigued for the sequel…and between first writing this and today at the library I have checked out the second book…with eight other books…. Maybe I should find a cure for my insanity instead of feeding it.