As a die-hard fan of The Princess Bride (1987, dir. Rob Reiner), I was averse when I found out that there was a “feminist retelling” of Buttercup and Westley’s story in book form: I loathe “feminist” stories.
Let me explain. I think that now that the feminist movement is more mainstream (albeit still – somehow – controversial), companies and corporations and whatnot increasingly see it as a marketing strategy. They seem to think they can just make women the main characters, or have more than one woman present, and they are therefore able to pat themselves on the back and say, “That’s my gender diversity and inclusion done for the day” (I’m looking at you, Avengers: Endgame, for that shot in the final battle against Thanos). It’s lazy.
I also think that, all too often, corporations interpret the audience’s desire for feminist portrays in the media and “strong female characters” to mean we want strong fighter ladies – which, admittedly, I am not averse to – and leaving it at that. Putting a sword (or the narrative’s weapon of choice) in the woman’s hand as opposed to the man’s doesn’t inherently mean feminism or equal rights: often, the female characters who are physically strong are also hypersexualised and visually hyper-feminine, seemingly as a way of compensating for the reduction of lady-points her ability in combat has cost her. Of course, the tide seems to be turning against the “strong female character” in favour of “complex female characters”, but (a) corporations are often slow to respond to public demand when its desires are more nuanced, and (b) The Princess Bride is inherently a swashbuckling adventure, so it’s highly unlikely any “feminist” iteration will feature anything less than the princess being the one to wield the sword.
With this in mind, it’s a fair question to ask, “But Yumnah, if you hate “feminist” films/tv/books so much, why on earth would you willingly purchase one?”. The answer is simple and two-fold:
1. I adore The Princess Bride and will consume it in any format it presents itself to me in.
2. The cover art – by Charlie Bowater – is absolutely stunning.
However, having read the book (twice!), I think it’s fair to say that The Princess Will Save You may well cause me to revisit my stance on “feminist” adaptations.
If, somehow, you’re unfamiliar with the plot of the original and iconic The Princess Bride, allow me to fill you in – with spoilers, because the book was published fifty years ago and the film came out in 1987. In a rural region of the kingdom of Florin, a farmer’s daughter, Buttercup (the eponymous Princess Bride, portrayed by Robin Wright) falls in love with the stable boy, Westley (aka the love of my life circa 2008, played by Cary Elwes). It is a swash-buckling romance with countless twists and turns, deaths and revivals, and ever-famous one-liners. It features Chris Sarandon as the villainous prince Humperdinck – and with a name like that, can we expect him to be anything but the villain? The pirates who kidnapped Buttercup return to save Westley, led by a short and angry Italian in the form of Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, aka the teacher from Clueless [1995, dir. Amy Heckerling]). The outlaws gate-crash Buttercup and Humperdinck’s wedding, and ultimately escape the evil prince’s clutches.
The basic plot of The Princess Will Save You mostly matches the original, with two key differences: our heroine is in fact a born princess, and her damsel in distress is the palace stable boy with a ~mysterious past~. In short – and as spoiler-free as I can manage – Luca (our stable boy) is kidnapped in order to force Amarande’s hand (our princess) into marriage with a neighbouring kingdom’s prince to ensure her ascension to her recently deceased father’s throne. She saves him – it would be a terrible fairy tale if there was no heroic (heroinic?) rescue – though it all goes horribly wrong, as numerous parties are after the couple, each with their own motivations for capturing the princess, the stable boy, or both.
On to my opinions! Admittedly, it was a little hard to get into the flow of things, as I had gone from reading Cassandra Clare’s entire The Shadowhunter Chronicles in two months, but the more I read, the more comfortable I was with Henning’s writing style. Personally, I found some of the chapters far too short: where the intended effect appeared to have been to shift the narrative to another character’s perspective, I feel that the same thing could have been achieved with a chapter break.
My structural qualms aside, I absolutely absolutely loved this book. It’s true to the sentiment of the original – the swashbuckling adventure, the dashing hero(ine), the political intrigue, etc. – but with a unique spin that renders it more than capable of standing up in its own right. As a fan of the original, I would have loved a few more references to it – “Inconceivable!” or “As you wish”, for example – but that’s just me.
Amarande (or “Ama” to Luca – which I think is aDoRaBLe) is an incredible heroine, and one I would love to read more of. I think that often, in the attempt to create a “strong female character”, there is a tendency for writers to do away with their female character’s more traditionally “feminine” qualities. It is therefore refreshing to see a female character who is considerably ruled and guided by her emotions. Amarande makes very rash decisions out of anger, spite, and love, and it’s her choices that come to impact the plot later in the narrative. Henning allows her to make (arguably) bad decisions, suffer for them, and then redeem herself. I also find it interesting that Henning touches on the fact that it is Amarande’s privilege as a princess that allows her to be guided by her emotions. For example, while we know Luca is very much in love with her, she doesn’t wait to kiss him, she just does. While it’s nice to see a female character who takes charge of her romantic endeavours (“I’m going to kiss you,” as opposed to “I hope they kiss me”), she is able to do so because she’s Luca’s social superior. When Luca asks to kiss her later, because he is “in a position that [he] must ask”, it forces Amarande to consider the notion that those lower down the social hierarchy do not always have a choice, even in so ‘simple’ a matter as acting on their desires.
In short, Amarande is great. She saves Luca in a ballgown, for crying out loud.
With regards to Luca… I love him. Ironically, it appears that in the attempt to fully flesh out her female characters, Henning has arguably limited her characterisation of Luca. For the first two-thirds of the book, I found Luca too passive a character to be worthy of Amarande’s daring rescue attempt. While it may have been an active choice of Henning’s – to flip the damsel-in-distress narrative directly on its head – I found it lacking. I couldn’t understand why Amarande was going to such great lengths for this guy. Of course, my opinion of Luca changed immensely as the story went on, and Luca proves himself an absolute sweetheart and a perfect match for his princess. However, I found this came too late in the narrative. My opinion is that if I’m meant to be falling in love with the protagonist’s love interest, I need to know why, and sooner rather than later.
Luca’s defining character traits are (1) his kindness, which is continually contrasted with Amarande’s brash nature and military training, and (2) his complete and utter devotion to Amarande. He’s a simp and I love him for it. While this ‘limiting’ of Luca’s character may well be an inadvertent side effect of Henning’s efforts to round out her female characters, it may alternatively have been an active choice, reminiscent of Jane Austen’s approach to her male love interests, summarised below:
So, how “feminist” is The Princess Will Save You, really? In my opinion, feminist heterosexual relationships – as this is ultimately a “kissing book” with a heterosexual romance – are about equal partnerships, as opposed to just putting the sword in the girl’s hand and calling it a day. I love Amarande’s rescue of Luca, but I also really love Luca’s eventual rescue of Amarande. To me, while the former scene shows “gIrL pOweR!”, the latter scene demonstrates a healthier and more equal relationship. It communicates that sometimes it’s okay to be saved, even if you’re the swash-buckling hero. It shows that while both Amarande and Luca are capable individuals, they’re best and most effective when they’re together.
In summary, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, I would recommend The Princess Will Save You, particularly to teenagers, fans of The Princess Bride, and also to anyone who wants a “feminist” reimaging of a beloved story. I hope that its sequel – The Queen Will Betray You – lives up to my hopes for Amarande and Luca’s relationship (Lucarande? Amaruca?), and provides a satisfying conclusion to the Kingdoms of Sand and Sky dualogy. I have one request of Sarah Henning: PLEASE CAN WE HAVE A MAP? I do love a good map.
The Queen Will Betray You is set for release in July 2021. The GoodReads page for the Kingdoms of Sand and Sky dualogy can be found here.