May Harper and Libby Deaton overcame their fifth-grade outcast status by creating Princess X, a katana-wielding superheroine whose exploits gave suburban life meaning. Then, in a tragic accident, Libby’s mother drove off a Seattle bridge, killing Libby and herself. Now sixteen, May drifts through life rudderless and alone… until she sees it. An image of Princess X on an abandoned storefront. A message meant only for her.
Locus Award-winning science fiction novelist Cherie Priest returns to her former adopted hometown of Seattle, the setting of her breakout novel Boneshaker. But that novel involved a carefully realized steampunk universe, where the contrast between real Seattle and Priest’s Seattle brimmed with satiric potential. This novel takes a more realistic tack, turning urbane, high-rise Seattle into a domain as complicated as any medieval dungeon.
That first Princess X image leads May to a thriving internet subculture dedicated to the Princess X webcomic. But that webcomic can’t possibly exist. Libby’s father discarded all their notebooks after her death, and these images tell an entirely new story. Aided by an affably harmless hacker from her building, May begins tracking subtle clues laced throughout Princess X’s story, an excruciating process that undermines everything she thinks she knows.
Priest offers the skeleton of an engaging story. The contrast between May’s unglamorous Seattle life and Princess X’s allegorical world, a network of complicated overlaps and correspondences, drives the story with urgency and panache. Priest gets good mileage from the theme of a complicated hidden reality, popular in multiple genres today. Coupling it with the complexities of Internet-based underground cultures and an urban quest feels like so much fun.
Seattle, in Priest’s understated telling, resembles less an American city than a catacomb of forgotten rooms and unseen tunnels. Princess X leads May and her sidekick, Patrick, into half-demolished coffee shops, mausoleums, and the rain-slick underbelly of various tourist attractions. May winds up discovering parts of her city that the tourist board would probably prefer remain hidden. But a complicated parallel society dwells beneath polite Seattle, bearing secrets.
This novel aims for a conventional “young adult” audience. It has many familiar tropes from that marketing niche, including teenaged protagonists who don’t necessarily start out precocious, but must quickly teach themselves resilience; an adult enemy whose own damages boil over into wrath at innocence; and a supporting cast of adults who blinded by conformity. Though telling a good story, Priest doesn’t really break any new ground in her genre.
Priests’s story mixes her prose with original comic art by Kali Ciesemier. Though much of this art wasn’t complete in time for the pre-release reviewers’ edition, what did is remarkable. Ciesemier’s two-tone line drawings resemble the underground “comix” I remember reading in the 1990s. Back then, comix tended toward autobiography. This has more heroic overtones, but retains symbolic resonance with Sonic Youth-era confessionalism.
Some of Priest’s choices feel like low-hanging fruit. The homogeneously young, white, middle-class ensemble, for one. Unreliable, generally clueless adults feel overused, especially when coupled with elaborate excursions into Seattle’s forgotten underbelly. A pretty teenage girl wandering into that environment would need legitimate guidance to avoid getting trapped in a Russ Meyer film. Most youth I know would appreciate a story coupling resourceful young protagonists with actual stand-up adult counsel.
Also, why’s this book so short? Bestselling YA fiction, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, indicates teens’ willingness to engage with epic-scale literature. Priest herself has been pretty voluble in her literature for grown-ups. At barely 200 pages, this book feels like a scanty pamphlet compared to many titles currently available on YA shelves. Especially with the compressed-feeling resolution, Priest probably could’ve afforded a little more description.
Still, that problem notwithstanding, Priest’s story will probably reach her intended audience with haste and concision. Though they, like me, may wish for a longer story with more characters, most readers will probably appreciate this novel for what it is. Accustomed to writing for a seasoned genre audience, Priest is clearly out of her element here. Yet she demonstrates wherewithal enough to burst in and make YA fiction her own.