Spirit's Princess, by Esther Friesner (Random House, April, 2012, middle grade/YA) tells of the childhood of Himiko, daughter of the chieftain of the small Matsu clan. By around 238 AD, Himiko was a queen, but before she reaches that point (which will presumably happen in the sequel to this book), she has lots of growing up to do....and so this is a book for the reader who has patience, one who is interested in the small things of life, and who doesn't demand happenings (in this, the cover is misleading--Himiko looks like an Action-Oriented princess, but that part of her life is yet to come). It's also a good one for the reader who likes historical fiction that explores the lives of little known women--the author's note at the end explains that Himiko's story is based on fact, which pleased me very much.
Himiko is the only daughter of her father, and so is the "princess" of her village. It is a narrow life, as her father distrusts all outsiders, and Himiko is not permitted to follow her dream of become a great hunter like her older brother (and even if she had been encouraged to follow this path, a fall in childhood leaves with a permanently lame leg). Slowly she realizes that her path lies elsewhere, as a shaman for her people. And so, interspersed with various family dynamics, we are told of her apprenticeship to the village shaman, which is kept secret from her dictatorial, xenophobic father, who simply wants to see her nicely married off.
There are shadows of a danger to come, which finally does arrive right at the end of the book. But until then, there's lots of family dynamics, with nicely drawn secondary characters, some interesting descriptions of Himiko's rather restricted life, some magical encounters with spirit world (although not quite enough for my taste--just barely enough to make this fantasy), and hints of more story to come.
I myself rather enjoyed it, though at first I was doubtful--- I felt that it wasn't quite necessary to spend so much time with five-year old Himiko (adolescent Himiko becomes more interesting). But even though I did read it avidly, appreciating the different culture, appreciating Himiko's various dilemmas and her growing familiarity with the spirit world, and hoping that it would all work out, I couldn't help but feel that this story is simply the prologue to a more exciting one to come.
And indeed, this is a good time to have read the book, because I am very much looking forward to its sequel, Spirit's Chosen, which comes out this April, and will not have as long to wait!
note on age: I'd be most likely to give this one to a ten or eleven year old girl, although it is described as being for ages 12 and up. There is nothing in the book that would give your typical middle grade pause, and I think older readers are more likely to be put off by the fact that Himiko is a little kid!