I've always liked the story of the twelve dancing princesses. It's such a pretty story, with dances and dancing slippers and gold and silver trees, and it also has a sense of mystery to it. The story raises a lot of unresolved questions, like where is this place the princesses are dancing? Who are the princes and is there a romantic interest there? How do the princesses live half in one world and half in another where they dance every night? How do they feel about the resolution to the story and their separation from the princes? What happens to the youngest sister who comes closest to noticing the soldier but doesn't marry him in the end? So I was happy to hear of Wildwood Dancing, which is based on the story, and intrigued to see what answers Juliet Marillier would bring.
In some ways, Juilet Marillier does not answer my questions. Wildwood Dancing is not an exact retelling of the fairy tale (and is the better for it I think), so there are only five sisters and the plot does not follow very closely the plot of the fairy tale. On the other hand, it offers a very satisfying portrayal of the place where the sisters go to dance and the people they meet there, here known as the 'Other Kingdom'. This book fills in what was so lacking from the fairy tale, it shows the 'princesses' (they are not in fact princesses in the book) perspective. The sisters approach their full moon dancing nights with a mix of wonder and caution as well as a kind of familiarity, since this is something they do often. The people in the other world are their friends, they know how things work there. I love a well evoked other world, and there are a few here. Firstly, the 'other kingdom', and secondly the real world, which is Transylvania in, I would guess the 18th or 19th century? It's hard to say exactly. In her epilogue, Juliet Marillier says she tried to avoid a lot of the Transylvanian stereotypes, and I don't know Transylvania or its folklore well enough to say how well she's done at capturing it but certainly it generally does avoid Dracularizing the place, while still having some moments of familiarity. And yes, vampires make an appearance. But vampires are not the main event.
The main drift of the story follows the five sisters, who live in the Transylvanian countryside, fending for themselves for the winter as their merchant father travels to warmer weather for his health. More specifically, it follows the second oldest sister, Jena, who is in charge of the family business while their father is away, with support from her uncle's family who live nearby. Unfortunately, her cousin's idea of help is to take control of the household of girls, and to pursue his goal of clearing the woods to take revenge on its supernatural inhabitants for the death of his older brother when they were kids. This threatens the household and their trips to the other kingdom to dance every full moon, as well as their independence and hopes for the future. The book feels increasingly suffocating as the the smart, practical and independent Jena and her sisters find themselves increasingly controlled, and face how little power they have as women in their time period. These are the books that made me cry as a kid, the infuriating and senseless injustice of someone abusing their power over others. It makes for a similar reaction as an adult, the same helpless feeling of suffocation. Jena battles with her cousin and works to look after her sisters as events in the both worlds lead to a crisis, with the help of her frog. Did I mention there's a love story?
There's a lot going on, and its a great fairy tale, coming-of-age story. Some parts of the plot and exposition felt a bit rushed toward the end, and the characters had a couple of moments of not noticing the obvious, but overall really enjoyed this book. I liked the love story, and I liked the relationship between the sisters. Though some the sisters were in danger of seeming two-dimensional at times- the smart one, the flighty one, the baby- for the most part this was avoided due to the clearly strong relationship they had, which allowed them to be fleshed out, and this relationship is sketched in well, the sisterly love, tensions and all. But the focus is on Jena, not her sisters, and they are not given as much development.
Really the strength of this book is on creating a sense of enchantment, and a satisfying fairy-tale reimagining. I feel like fairy-tales have featured strongly in my reading this year, so it seems appropriate to share this fairy tale site I found, SurLaLune Fairy Tales, which features a collection of fairy tales, fairy tale annotations, histories and interpretations.