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The Princess by Claire Delacroix
(Dell, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-440-22063-1
This is the first book in the "Bride Quest" trilogy. The bride quest is a common theme in folk tales and legend. Would-be suitors are sent on a quest to find some treasure whereby they will win the hand of fair maiden. This theme has appeared in the tales of many nationalities. The delightful children's book The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship (with Caldecott Award illustrations), which tells how the Fool of the World wins the princess, is based on a Russian tale.

In The Princess there's a lot of foolishness going on. In fact, the whole story is quite silly. While it's being marketed as an historical romance, any resemblance to historical events, personages, or attitudes is strictly coincidental. The twelfth century was never like this.

In 1171 the castle (which seems to have more in common with Cinderella's castle than any in medieval Britain) of King Connor of Tullymullagh in Ireland has been under siege. As the king is surrendering (actually he says he's "conceding" when he should be "ceding" intelligence isn't a strong family trait) to Henry II of England, Connor's daughter Princess Brianna comes running into the castle hall and demands that her father stop.

The hall is filled with fighting men, mercenaries, and knights. After a siege. In an era where women had little or no status except as property. Does the beauteous Brianna think that maybe this is a dumb thing to do? No, she becomes aware that "the golden mane that was her pride hung loose like a sunlit cloud." Then she realizes that "her emerald surcoat showed her slender curves to an advantage" and "the wide embroidered belt that slung over her hips might draw a man's eye too quickly to Brianna's narrow waist." (I warned you there's a lot of foolishness in this.)

Henry, who appreciates Brianna's beauty, decides that she should wed the son of the coarse Gavin, the conquering military commander. Brianna, however, had decided long ago that she would marry only for love. She demands to know if the son present in the hall is Gavin's only son. No, he's got two others. Henry orders that the other two sons be summoned from other lands so that they can contest for Brianna.

Brianna has concocted a plan. "A bevy of maidens" enters the hall "spilling flowers to the left and the right, their hair bedecked with ribbons." (By now it's wintertime. Where'd they get the flowers?) Brianna announces a quest whereby the three sons search out something that makes her laugh; she will wed the one that makes her laugh the longest.

Two of the brothers take off on this quest, but Luc Fitzgavin, the eldest but least-favored son, who resents being summoned from his barony in Wales where he has farmed and lived simply since withdrawing from knighthood, declares he is uninterested in winning the beautiful Brianna for himself even though he sees her as a "perfect, tiny fairy queen" and is "clutched with a desire so primal that it curled his toes." He can "imagine her curled up to sleep in a flower bud."

Since he is stuck in Tullymullagh until the fair maiden's wed, Luc decides he'll use his time to labor in Tullymullagh's neglected orchard restoring ailing trees (in the wintertime!). Brianna can't allow this. All the brothers must compete because, when she fails to laugh, the rulership of Tullymullagh will revert to her father. (Obviously the princess needs a reality check. What's to prevent Henry from dumping the whole idea, throwing her out on her lovely backside, and awarding the castle to anyone he pleases?)

In hopes that she can convince Luc to go on the quest, Brianna begins to spend time with him and finds him to be kind and considerate. Soon they're exchanging kisses. Their conversations become more and more personal. Brianna asks whether he's a bastard, but Luc tells her he's the result of a legitimate union. (Actually, while the prefix "Fitz" means "son of," it was originally applied only to illegitimate offspring.) He explains why he now a pacifist and has given up being a knight. (Is this 1171 or 1971?) She tells about her parents' great enduring love.

The author may have been aware that such a flimsy plot cannot sustain 400 pages (yes, 400!) because several subplots are also introduced. Luc hopes to get the promised seal to his barony from his unscrupulous father. There's some mystery about Connor's package. There's another mystery about the "Rose of Tullymullagh." A secret conspiracy leads to treachery and murder.

But the primary story is Brianna and Luc.

Brianna is the kind of heroine I doubt existed in the twelfth century. Beautiful, exquisitely dressed, and far removed from the nitty-gritty of daily life. Brianna does little but embroider fine cloth in the company of her maidens. Learn the workings of running a castle? Train in the management of food stocks and supplies? Supervise the labor of castle servants? All those things that ladies actually did in the twelfth century? Not Brianna. She's a medieval princess in the Disney tradition.

Luc's a decent hero. He's certainly a more appealing character than the shallow, empty-headed Brianna. Unfortunately he spends most of the book dwelling on how beautiful, tiny (like a fairy princess!), and intelligent (sure coulda fooled me) Brianna is. When he stops thinking about her and starts doing something, he's a lot more interesting. Luc, however, bears little resemblance to a member of his social class in the twelfth century. His disillusioned noble expectations of knighthood and resulting pledge to never touch a sword again seem most unrealistic.

The entire book seems unrealistic. None of the characters, their attitudes or behaviors, seem true to its time period. I particularly enjoy reading medievals, but I prefer them to have some base in reality.

If you're interested in reading an excellent medieval romance, I can whole-heartedly recommend the books of Roberta Gellis. If you're interested in a bride quest tale, I can recommend The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. (Terrific illustrations, too!) I can't recommend The Princess for either purpose.

--Lesley Dunlap

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