Princess At Sea, by Dawn Cook (Ace, 2006)

Once upon a time, Tess was Princess Contessa of Costenopolie. Then she learned she was really just a decoy princess, a target for would-be assassins. Her parents were killed as part of an audacious royal coup masterminded by the prince of a neighboring kingdom, and Tess was instrumental in restoring a semblance of order. That was then. This is now.

Now, her sister, the real Contessa of Costenopolie, sits on the throne, along with her new husband, a prince of Misdev. Tess acts as an advisor, lending the knowledge she picked up in her years as a princess, all the while trying to keep the royal couple from killing one another. What almost no one knows is that Tess has become a player, part of a mysterious game that spans across kingdoms, acting as the true power behind the throne. Now, under the tutelage of her mentor Kravenlow, she’s exploring her new role, and learning to use the magical abilities she’s gained as a result of exposure to a rare venom.

As the royal couple embark upon a honeymoon voyage meant both to reassure the populace that the throne is in good hands, and to give Queen Contessa time to settle into her new status, Tess goes along as chaperone. With them are Chancellor Kravenlow, the enigmatic Captain Jeck of Misdev (another player in the game), and Duncan, a charming card sharp who stands a very good chance of winning Tess’ heart, if not her loyalty. All seems fairly stable (apart from the occasional royal squabble… and the Queen pushing her husband overboard) until they detour on a mission of mercy.

Now, hijacked by pirates, the royal couple held for ransom, and Duncan apparently defected to the enemy, the situation looks grim indeed. Can Tess once again escape captivity, survive the attack of a mythically deadly creature whose very bite is poisonous, outwit a band of cunning pirates, and work with the unlikeliest of allies to save the day? She’ll be forced to rely on magical powers which could kill her, place her trust in two men of dubious loyalty and questionable goals, and push herself to the limits. Not for the first time, she’ll be tempted to toss it all, however, and walk away. What’s a princess-turned-player to do?

Once again, Dawn Cook delivers an outstanding, exciting tale that mixes adventure and intrigue, this time adding in the extra thrill of pirates. Watching Tess is always fun, given that she does, as Kravenlow points out, tend to leave a trail of destruction in her wake. She’s a good, strong character with plenty of faults that don’t detract from her appeal as a heroine. She plays well against the chaotic nature of Duncan, and the dangerously quiet Jeck, neither of whom are easy to predict. Changing allegiances, hidden motives, and dark secrets ensure that the plot keeps moving at a breakneck pace right up until the end.

I still have one quibble, and that is, now two books into the series, we still haven’t learned much more about the players and the game than when we started. Who are they, where did they come from, what rules govern them, all are questions to which we’ve gotten some answers, but nothing exhaustive. Hopefully, Cook will satisfy curiosity in future installments. Princess At Sea, however, is a thoroughly solid offering with plenty to offer its readers, and a worthy sequel to The Decoy Princess.

Originally posted at SF Site, 2006

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