I Am Princess X
Arthur A. Levine Books
Release Date: May 26, 2015
Is there anything Cherie Priest cannot do?
I first got to “know” her through her steampunk alternate history novel Boneshaker, which took me surprise and by storm. I read three other of her “The Clockwork Century” books and was pleased with how very unified yet different each one of them was, how neatly they fit together with each other, with established history, and with their own story lines. Then came Maplecroft, a novel that takes the Lizzie Borden legend and pairs it with a Lovecraftian ethos that re-energizes the idea of gothic horror. And if that weren’t enough, I recently read Jacaranda, a novella that again takes legend as its centerpoint, but this one channeling the best spaghetti Western hinged with supernatural horror – totally distinct from yet aligned with Maplecroft. And I’ve not even read half of what Ms. Priest has written.
And now, there is I Am Princess X, Cherie Priest’s first foray into YA literature. I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect; would there be a horror theme to this book? The supernatural, legend, steampunkery, alternate realities, Lovecraft?
The answer? None of the above.
Yes, there is drama. There is danger and excitement. And there is a whole heck of a lot of cheeky dialog (both shared and internal). But there also is a fast paced, engaging, dare I even say it – endearing story full of teenage angst (but not too much), geekiness (but not too much), and girl power (in the best ways) that is smart, savvy, and sweet and gripping in equal measures. And utterly believable.
May Harper and Libby Deaton became unlikely friends in the fifth grade; May had moved to Seattle from Atlanta and Libby had just changed schools, so both were outsiders to some degree, although Libby was cute and gregarious whereas May was clumsy and shy. When they were thrown together as rejects from PE class (Libby had a cast on her leg, May had asthma), out of boredom they created a teenaged super hero who wore a pink poofy princess outfit and red Chucks, and carried a katana (because that’s the sword that ninjas use, and it takes skill). They give her the code name Princess X (“Because X is the most mysterious letter,” May told her. “And things with X’s in them are usually pretty cool.”).
The two girls bond over Princess X, their friendship cemented in a shared alter ego. The stories grew, filling binders, notebooks and sketchbooks; May wrote the words, Libby drew the pictures. By the end of middle school, they had a whole library stashed in Libby’s closet dedicated to Princess X and her amazing adventures.
But then the unthinkable happens. Libby and her mother die in a tragic accident, May’s parents get divorced, and May is shuttled back to Atlanta to stay with her mom. She would return to Seattle on alternate holidays, and in the summers, but it wasn’t the same. Libby was gone. Princess X was gone. May was alone, and lost, and grieving.
Three years later in the summer of her sixteenth year, May is walking back to her dad’s apartment from an afternoon at the park, when something catches her eye: a worn out vinyl sticker, fixed to the corner of a window in an abandoned storefront. On the sticker is the image of a young girl, in a poofy pink princess outfit, with a tall golden crown, red Chucks – and carrying a katana. It’s Princess X.
But how can it be Princess X? Libby is gone, and all the notebooks and drawings got thrown out when her distraught father cleaned out their house and moved on. Yet when May starts looking, she sees Princess X in other places, as well – on flyers, as graffiti, on patches, and eventually, on a website (IAmPrincessX.com) that leads her to an underground webcomic that, while different from her original stories she created with Libby, are cryptically familiar…
Could it be that Libby didn’t die? That she’s still alive, somewhere? Is she reaching out to May, leaving clues, hinting at her whereabouts in ways that will only make sense to someone who used to be her best friend? No, that’s crazy… isn’t it?
Suddenly May is way outside her comfort zone, having to hide things from her dad, having to trust strangers, having to think fast on her feet, think outside the box, trust her instincts, all for the phantom of an idea of a lost friend. As the story progresses, the stakes get higher, and the action – and danger – ratchet up. In the end, May doesn’t just find out the mystery behind Libby’s death – she also finds herself, and discovers that Princess X lives inside everyone.
Once again, Cherie Priest has hit every mark in I Am Princess X. Her teenagers are believable, sounding and feeling authentic, with skills – both social and motor – commensurate to who they are and where they are from. There is fear of relationships here, yes (or perhaps “confusion” is a better word), but not simplified down into “does he like me, do I like him, think he’ll ask me out?” stasis that seems to plague so much YA literature. The plot does eventually spiral into the unreal, but in the sense that it’s not normal rather than in the sense that it’s contrived; it’s not nightmare inducing but it’s certainly thrilling and even heart pounding in places. Thank heavens for that! Young readers have plenty of time for nightmares later on.
In other words, it’s not too hot and it’s not too cold – it’s juuuust right.
It should also be mentioned that part of the success of the book lies in Kali Ciesemier’s illustrations, which go beyond mere decoration and become part of the story: panels in a comic book, character portraits of main characters, illustrated clues, all done in a strong, simple yet lyrical style adding thematic coherence to the text. Under Ms. Ciesemier’s deft touch, Princess X becomes more than a teenage idea – she becomes a literary conduit for the action of the story, and the attainable ideal that we all can achieve if we reach for it. And through the combination of words and images, I Am Princess X becomes more than a wonderful story – it becomes a wonderful experience.
And not a gunslinger, a slimy tentacle, or a dirigible in sight. Very well played, Cherie Priest, VERY well played. Once again, you amaze. But I guess I should be getting used to that by now.