Written by Anne-Laure Bondoux and translated into English by Anthea Bell, La Princetta et le Capitaine was mysteriously renamed The Princetta when it was finally released in the U.S. and U.K. two years after its publication in France. As with much foreign literature, translations are very subjective and only native speakers of the language in question can be sure of the original work’s true merit regarding writing style and composition, not to mention content. Nevertheless, The Princetta is a remarkable, heavily layered tale, a journal within a journal that is comprised of the most fantastical elements. The heroine is the feminine counterpart of Marco Polo, for the entire storyline feels as if it was pulled directly out of Marco Polo’s journal about his travels across the world or from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
Every oddity and strange phenomenon within unexplored lands that was puzzling in medieval times to Western civilization has its place in The Princetta as well, from a creature resembling an elephant to queer hybrids and new species. In regards to the numerous lands visited during the story, Galnicia, the home setting, is quite similar to medieval France or Spain; Cispazia and the Orniant must be located somewhere in the Orient; and Sperta appears to be Ancient Greece. At first, all countries and regions seem ordinary and geographically realistic enough. However, the varied wildlife and weather conditions hint that the author’s settings are a collective reconnaissance of the earth according to the Continental Drift Theory, when all continents once were one solid, connected land mass before later dividing.
On the other hand, the dangerous Archipelago is the fantasy side of the novel, a parallel dimension on the borders of the sea which contains the edge of the world, bottomless whirlpools, re-appearing and disappearing islands, and a horrible prison of torture called the Immuration. In fact, the Archipelago itself is a purgatory on earth; it offers a doubly cruel choice to each person who enters it. Those who choose not to brave the administered mental tests of character are doomed to stay in the Archipelago forever; those who succeed in the tests are rewarded with escape, while those who fail are confined to the depths of the Immuration, a living hell that brings terrible pain to each of its prisoners.
The Princetta has many metaphors and symbols, as the storyline relies on its parallelisms as much as on its vivid settings and colorful ensemble of characters. With the themes of feminism, independence, identity, and vengeance comes the truly evil Archont, one of the worst villains ever to be in a story; Malva, the beautiful and fiercely independent Princetta who craves freedom from her parents’ domination and her duties to her country; and Orpheus, the sensitive and caring captain whose hurtful past and confusing present lead him to the greatest love of his life and the grandest adventure ever experienced by any explorer. There’s also the very amusing and funny cook Finopico, sly twin rogues Peppe and Hob, faithful maid Philomena, and so many others. Malva herself is vivacious and adventurous, sometimes thoughtless and reckless but otherwise determined in her goals and kind towards others. Orpheus, on the other hand, has to cope with the memories of his past by making the most of the present.
It means forgetting his father was a pirate captain in order to become a true naval captain himself, dedicating his pursuits to navigating the sea and experiencing its turmoil. Orpheus is good-natured and open-minded, but in many ways he is still a boy, immature and a “greenhorn.” Furthermore, in The Princetta, one typical scenario straight from history and many fairy tales ignites the spark of the plot: a prearranged marriage of state. This creates a furious anger in the princess, the object of the merger, and it convinces her to finally run away from a future of isolation, disrespect, and routine in Galnicia. Throwing away everything known for the unknown and hardships is a great sacrifice, which Malva learns all too soon. The treachery of one of her best friends devastates her and only pushes her further to seek a distant utopia.
The Princetta, in some ways like Around the World in Eighty Days, is an odyssey for all the main characters. However, the journey in The Princetta is more impossible, with its many allusions to magic and supernatural powers, and it is less pragmatic in its tone. Also, the many legends and myths about the passage of time in different dimensions comes to life here, for The Princetta carries a twist on this very subject right before the ending. The shock of this twist alters Malva’s ideas and dreams, and prepares her for new trials.
From a deadly stay in an emperor’s vast harem to a battle in a Persian-like wasteland, wars, naval voyages, astronomy, healing medicines, and vibrant landscapes illustrate a magnificent story brimming with heartaches, bittersweet romance, and personal struggles. In one novel, Bondoux has combined exciting exploration and love stories with deep thoughts about mortality and the perspective of life itself.
Original review: Part 1: Explore new lands and the unknown in ‘The Princetta’; Part 2: Explore new lands and the unknown in ‘The Princetta’; Part 3: Explore new lands and the unknown in ‘The Princetta’, Examiner.com