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Nobody's Princess - Esther M. Friesner An historical novel about Helen of Sparta (before she grew up and became Helen of Troy)? Sounded compelling to me! Especially because Sparta is such a fascinating, complex and often-problematic culture.

Unfortunately, I got the impression from this book that it was written as a generic Western-princess-fairytale, the publisher thought it was too bland, and encouraged the author to put a Grecian gloss over the thing. It's still generic and bland - and at no point does it feel like it takes place in Sparta.

Helen is a spoiled brat who reads like a modern pre-teen. She spends most of the book whining.

Helen's big thing is that she wants to train with her brothers, doing physical exercise instead of sitting in the house spinning and weaving with her mother and sisters. Later, she meets an oh-so-unusual horsewoman and has to sneak around to learn to ride, secretly.

Here's in thing: in Sparta, spinning and weaving was done ONLY BY SLAVES. No upper-class Spartan woman did that sort of work, let alone a "princess." And - could we POSSIBLY call the garments worn by Spartan women 'chitons' not 'dresses'? Speaking of clothing, Spartan women frequently did not wear clothing - when they were doing the strenuous exercise and physical training that ALL young Spartans, male and female, participated in. A young Spartan woman would have had a time of it getting OUT of having to exercise, not getting TO exercise. Not only that, but upper-class Spartan women frequently rode horses, bred horses, and owned horses.

OK, I don't mind having preconceptions challenged by a novel. Perhaps the past wasn't like our concepts about it. Open my horizons. Challenge me. But - nothing about this book's setting felt 'Spartan' - or even 'foreign' at all. It was more Ren-Faire Medieval than anything. I have no problem at all with stories that show young women struggling against the sexist expectations of their society.

The problem here, though, is that this ISN'T a Spartan society. It's Our society, with a pseudo-Medieval, pseudo-Greek gloss on it.
The end result was that I felt that this book ends up being the opposite of empowering, because by showing a culture far removed from our own being sexist in so exactly the same ways as our own, instead of showing that sexist stereotypes can be overcome and defeated, it actually reinforces the message that these ideas about women are universal throughout the world and history and therefore are likely true.

Don't get me wrong - I don't demand that every book have an 'empowering' message. But I felt like this one meant to, and it backfired.The reason I like to read historical novels is to feel like I have been transported into another culture, another way of living, another way of seeing the world. Based on those criteria, this book was a complete failure.

It went to the top of my to-read list because I saw the sequel at the discount store, and I was wondering if I should buy it. The answer is "no."