The False Princess, by Eilis O'Neal (Egmont 2011, upper middle grade/YA, 336 pages)
For sixteen years she was a princess, and then, with no warning, Nalia's identity was stripped from her. She was simply a substitute for the real princess, who had been hidden away for safekeeping. Her true name is Sinda, she's a commoner, and the people she thought were her parents don't seem to give a darn about her. Before she can register what's happened, she's whisked off to her aunt's village, to somehow make some sort of life for herself...
But Sinda is still tied by the magical spell cast on her when she was a baby to the fate of the true princess. With the help of her old friend Keirnan, and magical gifts she never knew she had, she uncovers a plot to put yet another false princess on the throne. The mastermind behind this plot has already killed to make sure it happens, and is ready to kill again...
In short, it's an entertaining tale in which magic and intrigue are spiced with a nice dash of romance.
There are books that seem tailor-made for the 11 or 12 year old girl just beginning to make their way into YA fantasy--books that provide very gratifying wish fulfillment (Keirnan is more than just a friend, and Sinda discovers she has untapped magical powers), and which aren't Dark, even though bad things might happen. This is a book that I'd give in a second to a girl who loved Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, or Brightly Woven, by Alexandra Bracken. I bet that girl would find this riveting.
Although I myself enjoyed Sinda's story, and found found the plot fascinating, I'm not that eleven year old girl anymore, and it wasn't quite a book that I fell in love with. Partly this is because the things I wanted more of (Sinda's life with her aunt, a dyer and weaver in a small village, and her subsequent apprenticeship with a very eccentric old magician) weren't that important to the story O'Neal wanted to tell, which is no fault of the book's. And partly this is because I felt the Bad Character was Badder than really necessary, which strained my credulity--this is also a matter of personal taste, I think!
But these things would not have mattered if I hadn't been vaguely dissatisfied with Sinda's character. Sinda, narrating the story, constantly shares what is going on inside her head, but despite knowing her thought-processes in detail, I was never entirely convinced by her. Although she does grow as a character, become stronger and more self-confident as the book progresses, I didn't quite find the bravery and determination the plot required her to show toward the end believable. And introspection and self-doubt are fine, but she takes it too far-- an interior monologue with eight unanswerable questions on just one page (ie, "Was the king alive or dead?") is perhaps a bit much (p 248).
That being said, I'm going to pass this one on to the young reader to whom I gave my review copy of Brightly Woven (also from Egmont). She loved it, and asked for more...The False Princess should hit the spot very nicely!
Here's a sampling of other opinions: Bookyurt, WORD for Teens, and the Book Pixie
(ARC received from the publisher)