I'll start off by saying that I genuinely liked the book.
All my gripes aside, I thought that the main characters are well written and all interesting enough to have their own stories based on them, though obviously the book focused mostly on the boy, whose difficult circumstances as a nameless slave who is fated to be such are reflected well in his personality and his interactions. The way that the book is written so that the boy acts like he is being in an abusive relationship (which all slavery is, of course) and heavily alternating between relief and guilt was very heartfelt and written realistically enough. And both Alices are interesting and rounded in their own way, though some of that slips a bit into my grumpiness about the book, so I'll hold off.
I also liked the way that the book used
namelessness, and the affect that such a thing might have on someone, as opposed to the way it is typically used in fantasy, which tends to be along the lines of Le Guin, etc. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily, but it felt like it had more of a legitimate impact on the character in its benefits and its difficulties. And as the boy deals increasingly with those who are named but are introduced as his equals, his realization of the importance of a name, or at least the significance of it and the identity he is missing without it was solidly done.
The whole last third of the book was very strong, and the revelations were cleverly anticlimactic. I was tempted to feel cheated about the whole thing, but it fit so perfectly with the buildup, the core feeling of knowing that the boy couldn't be anyone special even with his fantasies, which allow his finale to feel all his own, free of suffocating destiny or his terror and belief in fate. And speaking of fate, the book's introspection and debates about it through the boy and Plain/Just Alice are thoughtful and believable. I wish the book skirted more of a middle ground than it did, but the boy's inability to let go of fate completely was just about good enough for me, because he reaches an equilibrium about it, which I thought was a better way to represent it.
I liked and thought that it was unique to have a book introduce the idea of a kingdom separated by two kings and not have them at war with each other. It was unique for a king
to fight for the legitimacy of his daughter ascending to the throne, which was a side step that I wasn't expecting as it's typically the daughter who petitions the father who then comes around. It was definitely refreshing to read a book that had the father take it as assumed and was fighting for her right to do so, though the issue skims on the edges of the book.
Overall the book was quirky, adventurous, and fun with fast wordplay brought by Mennofar, and philosophical quandaries for thought debated by both Plain/Just Alice and Mennofar. Really those two characters are what held me through the book, though certain executions of the characters (namely Alice) was a bit underwhelming. Some of the initial stuff introduced I thought could have been brought back, such as Ludwig and Rodrigo (I definitely thought that when Mennofar told the boy to go to the roof that Ludwig would be involved), but in fairness it would have felt spectacularly coincidental, though the happenstance of Casimir being at the end of the book could also be accused of such.
HERE ARE MY GRIPES
I get that the author may have wanted certain things from this book, though perhaps not intentionally. The commentary on slavery was clearly intentional, the commentary on gender perhaps not. The idea of the king fighting for Princess Alice's legitimacy lay in the right place, the idea of Just Alice facing difficulties in becoming a sage due to her gender lay in a similar place, of defying certain gender roles and pushing that girls can do whatever the goddamned hell they goddamned please, which, of all things, I am not only on the bandwagon for, but pulling and pushing the bandwagon for. It's just that these things are sort of given superficial lip-service and not really impacted on the actual usage of these female characters as a WHOLE in the book.
Look, I see that narratively there is criticism at backwards thinking, such as the Chamberlain believing that ladies should not hear of difficult things - the book rightly is not approving of that. But what does the book approve? Girls still have to get saved by boys, even if it's just the one. Girls are still rendered helpless in situations tied to their gender specifically. Enforced marriage, girls taken by dragons - not exactly unheard of plotlines, but where does the book fuddle with this state of affairs? Though Plain/Just Alice is clever and can just about keep up with Mennofar, she isn't the one to outwit Ludwig. Though Princess Alice is beginning to show exhibitions of her authority, she is still stripped of control and it turns to the boy to manipulate political situations he only sort of understands.
And the Princess Alice is hinted enough at being an interesting character, but unlike Plain/Just Alice we're not really allowed to savor her character and get to know her outside of her areas of crisis. The brief moment is the interaction they get to have with each other - an impressive ONE SCENE of an entire novel. Her pressure to lead a country but balance what she's told to act as as a GIRL is character intrigue enough FOR AN ENTIRELY SEPARATE BOOK but is reduced to a handful of sentences that keep hinting at depth but don't explore depth.
And finally, wading into the dark quagmire here, this whole book is rather hetero - which I know is calling the cavalry of "it's just a kid's book!" defenses to my door, but I pose to you that the book has plenty of mentions of the boy's crush on Plain/Just Alice, in a not particularly subtle way. If that's okay, then where is the rule stopping any sort of hints of crushes between two girls or two boys other than the societal impression that such relationships make them inappropriate for kids - something that causes this thing to be a perpetual motion machine of non-representation. I'm just saying if a boy and girl can fuss about holding hands because it makes them feel feels, so can two girls.
As far as picking apart certain social issues, the book is unremittingly safe. It buckles things it already knows there are no objections of, but tries to make it feel like they're big stances. Any clear breaks it shies away from, any actual stances... it just can't.
It still has to mention that boring, boring, boring trope of the husband who can't win the argument against his wife which is boring and boring and when I read that passage while walking to work I was tempted to fall into a puddle on the sidewalk and let out a groan of UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
I liked the book, it was a fun read in the end! But there are certain parts of it that I felt that the book could have skipped because either it won't stand to its convictions or it touches on it so lightly that it might as not have been mentioned at all, and almost draws attentions to its hesitations by doing so.