Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Cursed Princess and the Lucky Knight
Sonia de Clare is the last surviving member of her wealthy noble family, which she thinks is just the result of some terrible luck. As it turns out, however, her family was cursed by a corrupt priest during her grandfather's time, and unless the curse can be broken, the de Clare family will end with her. In an effort to forestall that, King Patrice announces her betrothal to the one man who might be able to pull that off: Sir Crisford Cristot, who's about as far from Sonia's princely ideal as you can get. Will she be able to put aside her horror of his physical appearance and go through with it? And is he really going to be able to break the curse and save her?
There is a theory that states that the fairy tale known as Beauty and the Beast was originally popularized in 17th century France as a way to calm the nerves of aristocratic, highly sheltered young women before their arranged marriages to older men. That's not one of the stated inspirations of novelist Uta Narusawa, but it certainly seems like it had an effect on The Cursed Princess and the Lucky Knight, her first novel to be published in English. Heroine Sonia de Clare is very much in the mold of the girls Madame le Prince de Beaumont's lengthy version of the fairy tale would have been trying to reach: gently bred, raised for the most part in an abbey among only women, and utterly horrified by the sight of her older, hairy fiancé.
Of course, there's more at stake for Sonia than just an arranged marriage. (It should be noted that she's fine with the idea of such a match; she's actually been anticipating it.) Although she's not aware of it until partway through the novel, the de Clare family is living under a curse – and unless someone figures out how to break it, they won't be “living” much longer: Sonia's the last surviving member and has only made it this long because she was installed at the abbey as a little girl. Her guardian, King Patrice, has been trying to figure out a way to save the last child of his close friend, and finally the Pope has provided an answer: he names Sir Crisford, a highly ranked knight in the king's service, as the only man blessed by God to complete the task. The caveat? He'll have to buck fashion and grow a big beard and cut his hair short, something Sonia is more than unimpressed with; she actually finds it physically repulsive.
Fortunately for the readers, Sonia's not a wilting lily of a heroine. Although she's upset that she's betrothed to Chris and not the king's handsome second son Severin (who she's had a crush on since childhood), she's also willing to work with what she's got, and she makes a decided effort to move beyond Chris' physical appearance and the fact that he's sixteen years older than her. (This latter fact bothers him more than her.) Even before she's fully clued in to the whole curse debacle, Sonia does her best to deal with the mysteriously horrible state of her family home, the disasters that continually befall her, and even begins to fall for Chris. The only thing that truly sets her back is the change in Prince Severin, who is not, shall we say, the charming young man she remembers him as. Given that this is rooted in her long-cherished emotions rather than facts as she sees them, it makes sense that it would be more difficult for her to deal with than something physically happening in front of her, which she can actively do something about. That's largely true of Sonia throughout the book; if she's faced with an external threat, she's on solid ground and takes action. If it's an emotional upset, she takes much more time to come to grips with it.
Narusawa says in the afterward of the book that her inspiration was actually the English knight William Marshal, with his wife, Isabel de Clare, as Sonia. If you're familiar with the history, or take a glance at the Wikipedia page, this does play out, right down to the age gap between the couple, although Narusawa scaled it back from twenty-six years to sixteen. While there's no indication of a curse upon the real de Clare line, Isabel was the wealthy, landed woman to Marshal's landless knight, and the facts of their marriage could be interpreted as having been a happy one if we look without the lens of “divorce wasn't legal in 12th century Britain.” (I.e. they were each each other's only spouse and they died within a year of each other.) In any event, it provides an interesting source for the characters and explains the heavy use of Christian themes in the text, as well as their more historically accurate usage.
What this does do, unfortunately, is make the translation read a bit more anachronistically than it strictly needs to. Whether this was a deliberate choice on the part of the translators or simply a transition from the original modern-casual language of Narusawa's text, the continued usage of words such as “okay” or “guy” among others is a little jarring with the Medieval story and world. This is not to say that it needed to be translated into Middle English (or even Victorian), but a little more formality would have made the book more immersive.
Fortunately The Cursed Princess and the Lucky Knight is an enjoyable tale all on its own. Sonia and Chris are engaging characters, threats to Sonia feel real whether they're physical or emotional, and the nod to Beauty and the Beast with Sonia's initial horror of her hirsute older fiancé is a nice addition to the rest. If you're looking for a nice e-book (no physical edition is available) with attractive illustrations and a decent story, this would be a good choice.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Sonia's a strong heroine, cool nods to history and folklore, Severin's character is a nice change of pace
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