Monday, April 16, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Princess Deception, Nell Stark

I really enjoy Twelfth Night, and I'm an even bigger fan of She's the Man. When I saw this available on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it. Modern adaptations of older works are always a lot of fun, especially when things get updated in unique ways. Because of that, I really, really wanted to love this one. However, I didn't.

The story is about Viola, the Princess of Belgium. When her twin brother, Sebastian, overdoses right before the month-long bid for the FIFA World Cup begins, she decides to play him while he goes to rehab so the bid can continue. Meanwhile, Missy Duke is a former pro soccer player who was forced to retire early because of a knee injury. Now, she's covering the Belgian-Dutch joint bid for a sports magazine/network. Cue the ensuing misunderstandings.

I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Duke finds out about Viola's ruse, but I think she finds out way too easily. Ultimately, I think that's what dissatisfied me. The whole conceit of Twelfth Night is that pretty much no one knows that Cesario is really Viola, and a lot of the drama and comedy come from the audience knowing. Instead of being intrigued by "Sebastian" and then having to reevaluate when she finds out Sebastian is really Viola, Duke spends the majority of their relationship trying to figure out why Viola's doing it so she can break a story. More than that, though, they actually just don't spend a lot of time together. We're 40% in before they have a conversation in private, and the black moment comes at 70%, which doesn't leave them much time to develop a relationship.

My main complaint is possibly my own fault. I went into this with high expectations because, like I said, I enjoy Twelfth Night and especially She's the Man. So, my expectation was that this would be funny. Instead, it's very dramatic. That's fine, and the drama is mostly earned. Sebastian's overdose and subsequent rehabilitation are treated with the weight they deserve. Duke is still depressed over losing her soccer career. I just wanted this to be a lot more fun and filled with more shenanigans than it was.

There are some nice moments and observations in the writing, though. At one point, Viola notes how much she appreciates her circle of friends. Both Viola and Duke treat Sebastian's addiction as a disease and defend him against people who would "out" his addiction as a scandal. While posing as Sebastian, Viola realizes she shouldn't say a lot because men are often laconic when it comes their emotions, and she wonders "whether men felt as constrained by the norms governing their behavior as she did emulating them."

Because there's such a focus on a woman pretending to be a man and having to wear "masculine" clothing and on how people present gender, it made me think a lot about transgenderism and gender expression and passing and the "proper" amount of masculinity or femininity. I don't know if this can be classified as transgender representation, especially whether it can be classified as positive transgender representation. What I can say is that it made me think and made me want to learn more about transgender history.

Overall, The Princess Deception is an interesting book, but don't go into it expecting a faithful representation of Twelfth Night.

Thanks to NetGalley, Bold Strokes Books, and Nell Stark for the advanced e-copy in exchange for an honest review.

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