Review: The Desert Princess

Melanie Cellier is the author who introduced me to the wide world of indie authors with her first fairy tale retelling, The Princess Companion. Since then, she has written roughly a dozen more adaptations of classic fairy tales set in the same world of fairy godmothers and true love. The most recent of these is The Desert Princess. After reading so many books from the world of the Four Kingdoms already, it's a little difficult to experience a new book from these series that feels fresh and exciting. The prospect of a gender-bent "Aladdin" retelling is nothing new, but I was eager to see Melanie's unique take on it. However, this adaptation did not add any new developments to her many other fairy tale retellings set in this world. If you have never read another Melanie Cellier book before, this is a good introduction to her storytelling style.

The Desert Princess by Melanie Cellier

It has become a predictable trope for all of Melanie Cellier's fairy tale books to begin with a caravan raid that sends the main character somewhere far from her home and forces her to unmask the ne'er-do-well behind the devilish deeds, especially in the newest Return to the Four Kingdoms series. Oftentimes, the princess or princess-to-be has little interest in uncovering a royal conspiracy and gets hurled into the middle of it by sheer misfortune. That is not the case for The Desert Princess. Cassie is determined from the very beginning to become an intelligencer for Aurora, the codename for the spymaster princess from an earlier book, The Princess Game. A noble maiden who dreams of becoming a spy is an interesting prospect on its own, but in this setting, which is overloaded with princesses of espionage, it's a little too on the nose to have a protagonist who is desperate to cover a conspiracy and then immediately fall into one.

I was hoping that Cassie would spend half the book looking for some sort of problem to solve, only to realize that trouble doesn't find you just because you're looking for it, but that was not the case. Instead, she learns that the bandits she encountered pose a threat to her kingdom, hides in the back of their wagon, and travels to a faraway land that she never knew existed. She meets a group of orphans there who turn out to be the genies in this version of "Aladdin," but in truth, they are ordinary children who are cursed by a magical ring. As much as I like that Melanie incorporated both the ring and the lamp from the fairy tale into this version, the mysterious and majestic nature of the genie character is all by eliminated in this adaptation. The orphans are cared for by a young man named Zaid who Cassie falls for immediately, and then there is an unnecessary time jump of a little over a year before the story finally gets around to truly retelling "Aladdin."

The book takes a while to pick up, and I honestly didn't find the first half very interesting since it felt like every other Four Kingdoms book without any of the aspects that made them unique. When Cassie discovers the Cave of Wonders (though it wasn't called that here) in the second half of the book, the story finally starts to get interesting. The backstory behind the enchanted ring and lamp could easily be a prequel novel and adds a healthy amount of worldbuilding to this new desert kingdom. Once she discovers the lamp, Cassie undergoes a magical princess transformation to take down the wicked vizier, and there are a few more twists that I won't spoil in this review. I'm not sure why it was necessary for Cassie to be in this foreign kingdom for over a year before she found what she was looking for. The book would have been better if it started closer to the second half of the story.

Overall, The Desert Princess is quite possibly the most generic Four Kingdoms book of the three series set in this world. It wastes no time foreshadowing the protagonist's ability to uncover conspiracies and driving her into one headfirst. It's a decent enough book as a standalone but has nothing new to offer this series as a whole. I don't think that's entirely Melanie Cellier's fault, though, as she has already written so many other fairy tale retellings in this world that she was bound to run out of ideas eventually. This book serves as a good introduction to her Four Kingdoms series if you don't want to start all the way at the beginning with The Princess Companion, but if you are looking for an inspired "Aladdin" retelling that adds depth and intrigue to the lore of the djinn, you would best look elsewhere.

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