Review: “Nobody’s Princess” by Esther Friesner

In Young Warriors: Stories of Strength, there is a short story in the collection entitled Thunderbolt by Esther Friesner.  Thought to have been the offspring of a god and fairer than any woman alive, Helen (later nicknamed “Helen of Troy”) was a Spartan princess who now is reborn in this smashing take on her ignored adolescent adventures.  The author chose to focus on only one period of Helen’s eventful life: her teenage years.  In Thunderbolt, Helen’s kidnapping at the hands of boorish Theseus, king of Athens, turns quickly into an underestimated battle of wits, disguise, and mistaken identity when Helen manages to escape on her own.  This actually is the real introduction to Friesner’s later two novels solely about Helen, Nobody’s Princess and its sequel Nobody’s Prize.

Bursting with energy and a good-natured comic relief of Greek mythology, the author introduces the literary world again to Helen, a good-looking princess who has endured centuries of rumors and a bad reputation.  Nobody’s Princess has a more plausible vision of Helen, a young girl who grows up proud and impetuous.  She also is extremely strong-willed and determined, not to mention feministic.  This future queen of Sparta, Ancient Greece’s most militant city-state, realistically turns from the feminine task of weaving to sword-fighting, the arts of war, and horseback riding.  Of course, Helen is taking all these “manly” lessons behind her parents’ backs.

Soon, Helen’s martial skills outmatch those of her twin brothers Castor and Pollux.  A trained warrior with a talent for being outspoken and strategic, Helen rebels against injustice and the oppression of her own freedom no matter where she is.  Friesner’s idea of Helen’s character is exquisite.  Her theory about how Helen would be raised in Sparta is historically accurate, considering that Spartan women were active in sports and physical training like men.  Helen becomes a strong woman capable of clear thought and saving herself from trouble with rational planning instead of a weak female needing rescuing or running after men herself.  This in itself is an intelligent twist on Greek mythology and the history of Ancient Greece.

Also, Friesner shows what it would be like for a beautiful woman like Helen to survive in a man’s world, where women were disrespected daily and practically disregarded as human beings.  Helen’s attitude toward her position as future queen of Sparta, her temperament, and her unquenchable thirst for real life experiences command the many turns of the storyline.  She gets to meet Atalanta, another famous female figure of Greek mythology who freed herself from the control of men by living her own life separately and not caring what people thought of her marital status.

Helen also has her share of dealings with men, from pompous and cruel Theseus (who’s very unheroic) to the scandalous household of Atreus and Thyestes.  Young Clytemnestra and Queen Leda also are included in the story.  In fact, most mythological characters in Nobody’s Princess get credible and very interesting makeovers in terms of personal history and personality that deviate from what the “original” Greek myths describe them to be, a breakdown of how these “tall tales” and “heroes” really came to be.  Helen’s personal participation (in disguise) in an infamous boar hunt with Atalanta and Meleager or her first hateful encounters with Theseus lead through a firm slap from reality as Friesner carefully recreates this environment of Ancient Greece.

However, the Greek deities and even the Oracle of Delphi receive ambiguous treatment from the author.  It’s hard to tell whether she’s mocking these ideas or only questioning them when she still admits to having some respect for the concept of supernatural interference in everyday life.  Nevertheless, Nobody’s Princess is compelling and even motivating with its humorous drama, bold action, and limited romance.  After all, its heroine is “the most beautiful woman in the world,” a girl who actually can analyze fight-or-flight situations more perceptively and intuitively than a seasoned soldier.  The novel also blends Greek mythology into a striking new atmosphere of what legends are made of—great characters, memorable events, and spirited action.

Original review: Part 1: Helen of Troy is now a headstrong and indomitable warriorPart 2: Helen of Troy is now a headstrong and indomitable warriorPart 3: Helen of Troy is now a headstrong and indomitable warrior,


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