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Fleen Book Corner: The Prince And The Dressmaker

This review has been the hardest to write that I’ve ever done, and probably won’t be displaced any time soon; I’ve long had a policy of writing about work that I could wholeheartedly recommend, rather than trying to discourage people from reading what I thought fell short of the mark. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a book that could come back to positive territory with the change of literally one word.

So I’m going to be very careful to explain my thoughts on this book, and I’m possibly going to fail. It’s entirely plausible that my major criticism would reflect the reading experience of approximately nobody else in the world. I mean no disrespect to Jen Wang (whose work I’ve enjoyed for years and whose Koko Be Good has been a favorite for pretty much the entirety of this decade) or any of the folks at :01 Books (who sent me the review copy I’ve been reading and re-reading for a couple of months now).

Comments are open down thataway, and spoilers are everywhere from this point on.

Okay, let’s get the basics out of the way — The Prince And The Dressmaker is the story of Frances (the dressmaker) and Sebastian (the prince) in fin de siècle Paris; he likes wearing beautiful dresses, she wants to be a fashion designer, they end up working together underneath the noses of Parisian Society and his stuffy parents, who just want to arrange a nice, traditional, royal betrothal.

On the surface, it’s a sweet story with a message about accepting different identities and finding one’s path in life, in full Disney mode (more on that momentarily). A little bit deeper, it’s got flaws — some slight, some more severe. We’ll start at the benign end of the scale.

We know what the Disney version of things looks like, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sebastian is found out as a cross-dresser, flees court for a monastery in shame, and returns to fabulous acclaim in a fashion show that features not just the begowned prince, but his father the conquering military hero king and a platoon’s worth of soldiers, all in fabulous women’s wear.

There’s the Disney mode of fairy tale logic, and then there’s stretching things to the breaking point; the sudden shift of half of Paris society towards accepting the disgraced prince, the willingness of his giant-of-a-man father to appear on a catwalk in an off-the-shoulder haute couture creation thirty minutes after the emotional confession I’m a prince who likes dresses breaks the suspension of disbelief.

There’s a portion of TPATD’s intended audience that needs this message that they can be accepted, but by making it so total, so sudden, so implausible, I fear it’ll be received as but that only happens in fairy tales and make believe. The Disney version has its place, but the entire message was much better conveyed in Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy (review here).

For a young reader in Sebastian’s position, nothing that TPATD promises is likely to happen; TWB promises a less happily ever after ending, but one that is conveyed as achievable by mere mortals. It’s the difference between Sebastian got to live happily ever after because he’s a prince so they have to accept him and Aster and his family are working towards acceptance in a way that I could do, too.

Maybe it’s necessary to see the external success (Sebastian is happy and accepted) before being able to imagine the personal (I could be happy and accepted), but it still reads false to me. Or maybe I’m just surprised that Scholastic describes TWB as for ages 8-12 and :01 describes TPATD as for ages 12-18; the former’s message reads to me as more sophisticated than the latter.

The real flaws, however, the stop-me-cold-I-did-not-just-read-that flaws, are probably more down to editing that anything else, and they’re encapsulated in one word: Belgium.

Sebastian is the Prince of Belgium, visiting Paris for the season with his parents. In a couple of places, he and his father each try to pull rank with Parisians of the Third Republic (As your Prince, I forbid you to leave! Return to your servant quarters, now! and I’m the King. This show will go on exactly as they please.), which … yeah, not buying it. Okay, I’ll give that some slack and take it as evidence of royalty used to getting their way forgetting they aren’t in their sovereign lands at the moment.

But I can’t give slack to Sebastian’s father, King Leo.

King Leo, of Belgium, somewhere at the end of the 19th Century. King Leo, who bears a more than slight visual resemblance to Leopold II, who was King of the Belgians at the same time in history. Leopold II, who was perhaps the greatest enslaver and mass murderer of modern history.

This is why you make up little Grand Duchies for your fairy tales.

Leopold II was the brutal son of a bitch who held the entirety of the Congo and all of its people as his personal property. Between the ivory and the rubber he set production quotas that resulted in roughly half the inhabitants of Congo — ten million people — dying at the hands of his mercenary security forces, with uncounted more mutilated to set an example for others. When the Belgian parliament confronted the horrors — and this was the time when the mission of enlightening and Christianizing the brown peoples of the world was seen as right and proper and worth the occasional unfortunate brutality — and forced him to turn the colony over to the nation for management, he had the Congolese archives burned to hide his crimes.

It’s not intentional, but it is inescapable — for anybody that knows the history of Europe and/or colonialism, the name Leo will not evoke a somewhat pushy but ultimately sympathetic figure who only wants the best for his people and his son. It’s not possible for me to separate the unfortunate parallels of Leopold II and Leo; the benign landbound King Triton of the Gilded Age will always appear to me as the evil incarnate butcher that literally inspired the concept of crimes against humanity.

Which leaves me in a peculiar position. There’s so much that’s well done in TPATD; Wang’s character designs are terrific, her fashion designs are both era-appropriate and suitably fairy tale-fantastic¹, the look and feel of Paris is both gritty and glittering. A lot of people love it, and it’s easy to see why. For the right reader, with the right expectations, and the right people to answer the questions about a very bad time in history (questions that may never come), it could become a cherished favorite.

But for the love of God, in future printings change Belgium to literally anything else.

The Prince And The Dressmaker will be released on 13 February from :01 Books.

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¹ With one exception at the very beginning, but it’s for story reasons.

Thank you for posting this.

Alas, that’s history for you. If you go back 50 years into history, everyone is pretty evil. Go back another 50 years and you are looking at the people that the people 50 years ago thought were evil. Churchill was advocating using poison gas against African tribes (more survived than with rifle attacks). Belgium in the first world war, and Belgium was ‘Gallant Little Belgium’ standing up against ‘The Hun’. Conrad gives an idea what was considered ‘fair game’ in Africa.

I’m not saying that Leopold was a good guy, but he was a greatly respected member of the European aristocracy at the time, and his sons may have looked on his African project as little more than a sensible investment, if they looked on it at all.

Jen could have set it in Ruritania and avoided all the history stuff, but that’s a bit of a cop-out. Was Belgium chosen for its history? I don’t think so, but what did Jen think?

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