Book Reviews

How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

How to Find a Princess is a playful retelling of Anastasia with a lovable cast of characters that made me smile. It pairs a reliable pragmatist with her catnip, a chaotic adventurer. If you found the first novel in the Reluctant Royals series a bit stressful, rejoice! The sequel has less angst, but it also has an abrupt ending.

Makeda Hicks grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories of an affair with a man who claimed he was a prince of…somewhere. She also had to pick up the pieces after her mother’s embarrassing attempts to prove their lineage never came to fruition. So when responsible Makeda loses her job and her girlfriend, and has to move home, the last thing she wants to hear from her grandmother is another royalty scheme. This time, the Mediterranean island of Ibarania is holding a contest to find the descendents of their long-missing queen. Makeda’s grandmother thinks they should enter. But Makeda is tired of being a people-pleasing doormat, and she has no interest in traveling across the world to try and claim the crown.

Unfortunately for her, Beznaria Chetchevaliere, the World Federation of Monarchists’ most unpredictable investigator, has other plans.

Bez was impossible for me to keep from falling in love with. Her ancestors were tasked with preventing the Ibaranian queen from disappearing, and Bez takes that legacy seriously. When her incompetent boss is hired to find the Ibaranian heirs, Bez ignores his orders and decides to investigate herself, eventually making her way to Makeda’s family. This is only the first of many times that Bez disregards inconvenient suggestions. I appreciated that Bez solves problems her own way. It meant the storyline progressed in directions I didn’t always anticipate. She’s hyper-focused on her goals, but good at listening to others for interpersonal clues that she may have missed while distracted. The book felt like it was celebrating neurodiversity, without explicitly diagnosing Bez.

How to Find a Princess has a playful, wry tone that gently pokes fun of royalty tropes. Bez’s scene with her monarchy-obsessed boss, Lord Higginshoggins, Algernon Shropsbottomshireburrough, pronounced Smith, is comic gold. Ibarania’s search for an heir is an unapologetic tourism campaign for the island. The newly minted royal role is mostly ceremonial, so readers looking for political intrigue will be disappointed. For Bez, it’s a chance to clear her family’s honor.

From the moment they meet, Bez is positive that Makeda is a queen. She spends most of the book trying to convince her, while still respecting Makeda’s ability to make her own decisions. It’s a delicate balance, and for the most part the book handles this well. Bez is persistent, and Makeda is equally stubborn in not wanting to acquiesce just because someone else needs her. This is a situation that could have easily not worked for me, since rivals to lovers aren’t my fave, but their dynamic felt more like a game than a competition.

The two are obviously attracted to one another, but Makeda isn’t sure how much of Bez’s charm is designed to get her to agree to enter the contest. Makeda has a tendency to make herself indispensable, but in the process, she sometimes lets others take advantage of her. She initially resists Bez because she doesn’t see herself as the princess type. Instead she’s “the type who won people over with her usefulness and reliability, not by grabbing their attention.” So when she catches Bez’s chaotic attention, Makeda is understandably wary of falling into her usual pattern of dating someone who needs her. I really appreciated that while Makeda works to get over her tendency to be overly selfless, it’s not a straight line to success. She briefly overshoots into selfishness, and then course-corrects to find a balance that serves her. And through it all Makeda remains supremely, soothingly, competent.

Bez has a protective bodyguard vibe, a strong sense of honor, and belief that she can and will save anyone who needs her to. She has a side hustle business, “Damsel in Distress Rescue Services,” which she offers to Makeda at one point. While Makeda is never in any danger, Bez’s physical capability, and hint of a wounded military past, made me think she could take down a platoon of bad guys if I needed her to. For Makeda, who has some childhood scars from mom’s royal pretensions, Bez’s confidence is heady:

“…no one will laugh at you,” Beznaria added.
“I don’t think you can guarantee that,” Makeda said. When she glanced at the investigator from the corner of her eye, Beznaria pulled her knife from her pocket and executed a skilled flourish. She could see how both the handle and the blade were painted with a motif that was similar to the waves and flowers in Beznaria’s tattoo, in shades of blue and ivory. Along the blade, the word promessa had been hand inscribed.

Bez held the blade up, turning it this way and that so it caught the weakening rays of the sun. “Okay, let’s say one person laughs. No one would dare it after them.”
She flipped the blade closed and tucked it away, looking at Makeda with an almost cheerful expression.
Makeda wondered how she’d never known she had a thing for knives.

“Okay then. I won’t reject that part of the rescue package. I guess I should do it for the money.”

“You should do it for yourself,” Bez said. “For the girl who was bullied for being called princess, and the woman who hates that I could think her a queen.”

While I love well worn tropes, I also love books that surprise me by subverting my expectations with a few curveballs in the emotional arc. Once Makeda agrees to travel to Ibarania, she and Bez wrangle free transport on a ship by pretending to be newlyweds. The ship’s multicultural crew offers a comic backdrop for Bez and Makeda delightful struggle against their initial agreement of “no feelings and no fucking.” The interlude on the ship is my favorite part of the book, because it gave me a taste of forced proximity, and the frequently funny crew have a warm camaraderie as they help Makeda and Bez find their way to one another. But readers who prefer plot-driven stories may find the middle of the book a slog, with the story’s resolution squished into the final chapters.

Another potential annoyance: Bez is keeping a secret from Makeda, and she ignores several openings to tell her, in a misguided need to protect her from worry.

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After finally convincing Makeda to travel to Ibarania for the contest, she doesn’t tell her that her boss has stopped answering her calls, isn’t paying for the trip, and appears to be working against them. Bez worries about how Makeda will respond, but ultimately Makeda figures most of it out for herself, and the issue is resolved with minimal tension

Bez is clearly in denial about the mounting evidence that things aren’t going according to her plan. I found this frustrating, because Bez is smart, and readers who hate secrets between main characters may be annoyed. I was a little sad that this conflict dragged on, but I forgave the book because I was delightfully surprised by its resolution.

Unfortunately, that’s the only resolution that I found satisfying. The book’s fast-paced finale abruptly ends so quickly that I thought a whole chapter was missing. It’s almost an emotional cliffhanger, because Bez and Makeda never tell each other they love one another, and skip over a needed conversation about their relationship status, going straight to Uhaul. I was dazzled by the creative storytelling, but I really wanted to bask in the main characters’ happiness a little longer. The heroines are trying to help their families for much of the book; I was disappointed that their family’s reactions weren’t a bigger part of the story’s closing.

How to Find a Princess is an imaginative twist on a modern lost royal trope, and a character-driven story that made me fall in love with everyone I met, even if they occasionally frustrated me. Makeda and Bez are the cutest slow burn, and their flaws perfectly fit together like puzzle pieces. I adored the book right up until its somewhat unsatisfying ending to the romance. I’m happy to have read it, but it left me wanting more.

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