penmage: (fairy tale innocent [art by John Bauer])
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Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Rose is the oldest of the twelve princesses of Westfalin. She and her eleven younger sisters and the beloveds of their father and kingdom, but they don’t live a charmed life. Instead, they are cursed to spend their nights dancing at the Midnight Ball of the evil King Under Stone. Galen is a young soldier-turned-gardener, returned from the front after a long war to live with the only family he has—and to work as a gardener in the king’s garden. It is there that he meets Rose and her sisters—and there that he begins to see the dark cloud hanging over the princesses. And while the king and his court try in vain to discover why the princesses’ dancing shoes are worn out night after night, and why the girls are always so exhausted, Galen may be the only one who can learn their secret—and the only one who can save them.

This is a really engaging retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” fairy tale. The burning question in that story is always, why? Why do the princesses dance? It always bothered me that the soldier revealed and stole away their secret paradise, and in exchange got to marry one of the girls. How dare he!

So I liked the curse twist in this retelling. Here, the princesses are trapped in a truly horrific curse. Early in the book, when Rose has to go dance when she’s sick, I really felt sick to my stomach for them—I felt the awfulness of their curse in my bones. So Galen’s finding their secret is a good thing—a very good thing.

Things I didn’t like: it always bothers me a little bit when an author co-opts real geography and gives in a slightly different-sounding name. Espana for Spain. Breton for Britain. Etc. And Westfalin was clearly Germany, or at the very least Germanic. If you’re going for a fantasy world, make up your own country names and geography and religion. If you’re placing your fairy tale retelling in a real time and place, then use the real names. I don’t like the wishy-washy, can’t make up her mind version of places.

Also, I know it’s a fairy tale, but the ending felt a little too happily-ever-after for me. Really? Galen the solder/gardener gets to be the king? I would even be okay with Galen getting to marry one of the princesses, but not getting the throne, but politically—he gets to be king? Really? How does that even make sense?

Maybe I am too much of a realist. Don’t get me wrong, I like happy endings just fine—but I think this ties in to my previous complaint. If you are going to model your kingdom on real places and cultures from our history, then follow through. I can’t imagine any king willingly handing over his thrown to a commoner, no matter how grateful he was. It just feels too tidy and Disney.

I think it’s very interesting to compare this retelling with another I recently read, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Mariller. In that story, the dancing was a wonderful thing, something to look forward to, and the danger came not from the fae but from fellow men.

Wildwood avoids the major pitfall of Princess--it is solidly based in time and place, in a Transylvania that feels real and right. The gender politics in that book made me bristle, but for the characters, not against the illogic of it. There, control over the business is wrested from Jena by her domineering cousin who thinks girls are not capable of a business mind. Here, Rose and her sisters are treated like full-fledged people by their father, the king.

Overall, I think Wildwood Dancing is the better book. The details hold together better—it feels more researched, more nuanced, more anchored in place and time—-more real. And the lush writing is gorgeous and captivating. That said, I enjoyed reading Princess of the Midnight Ball a little bit more—-probably entirely because Rose and Galen both were more likeable characters, and I didn’t want to shake either of them.

Date: 2009-04-06 07:33 pm (UTC)
creatrix: (Bujold: home is people)
From: [personal profile] creatrix
I believe Germany has a region called Westfalen. (Nordrhein-Westfalen auf Deutsch; North Rhine-Westphalia in English), so that's probably where that's from.

Dumb question: Rose is the oldest of the twelve princesses of Westfalin. She and her twelve younger sisters. If she's the oldest of twelve, how does she have twelve younger sisters? Wouldn't she have eleven? (I just got off work. My math is probably faulty.)

I love fairy tale re-dos, though. I need to get more.

Date: 2009-04-06 07:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] penmage.livejournal.com
Ha, no. Just me making mistakes. Thanks for catching that--fixed!

I assumed that Westfalin was in some way Germanic. I still don't like the pseudo-real country usage, though.

Date: 2009-04-06 07:45 pm (UTC)
creatrix: (caelum ac terras miscere)
From: [personal profile] creatrix
Agreed. If you're going to make stuff up, make it up; if you aren't, then use something real and do a bit of research.

Date: 2009-04-06 07:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] etoilepb.livejournal.com
Things I didn’t like: it always bothers me a little bit when an author co-opts real geography and gives in a slightly different-sounding name. Espana for Spain. Breton for Britain. Etc. And Westfalin was clearly Germany, or at the very least Germanic. If you’re going for a fantasy world, make up your own country names and geography and religion. If you’re placing your fairy tale retelling in a real time and place, then use the real names. I don’t like the wishy-washy, can’t make up her mind version of places.

I'm amused that this is a pet peeve of yours, because I actually tend to like it quite a bit when authors present just-alternative-enough versions of the world we have. It's like reading AU historical fiction, or a peek into a parallel universe or something.

Date: 2009-04-06 07:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Yeah, I don't mind it either. I guess it goes to show that one person's bug is another one's feature, and vice-versa...

Date: 2009-04-06 08:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] penmage.livejournal.com
Just to clarify--I like alt.history novels that subtly play with our own past to create something fascinating. I just don't like it when it's less a deliberate choice that informs the movement of the plot, and more a lazy writing decision to avoid having to worldbuild.

Genuinely good alternate history requires a serious amount of worldbuilding, as much as any decent fantasy novel. But naming your countries after real places but not actually doing anything with them is just sort of a cop-out, to my mind.

Date: 2009-04-06 08:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Good clarification -- I understand what you mean now, and I agree. For instance, just because the setting of Megan Whalen Turner's Thief books is based on Greece doesn't mean she hasn't had to do a lot of worldbuilding to set up the unique political context and so on. Plus, she's chosen more of a Renaissance Greece than the default of ancient Greece which makes it doubly interesting and fresh (though it totally threw me off at first -- watches? Guns?).

Date: 2009-04-06 08:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] penmage.livejournal.com
You know, I also tend to like that--when it feels like a deliberate move on the author's part. Alternate history is one of my favorite things, so I like it when it feels like a nuanced part of the plot. But when it just feels like the author co-opting history and then changing it just a little bit so she doesn't have to do her homework--THAT'S what I don't like.

Date: 2009-04-06 08:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] etoilepb.livejournal.com
Mmm, I completely understand that distinction. The folks who do it best (I've read or re-read a lot of guy Gavriel Kay and Jacqueline Carey in the last year) have obviously done a lot of research and definitely apply it consciously to plausible scenarios.

Date: 2009-04-06 08:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] penmage.livejournal.com
Yes, absolutely! The Lions of Al-Rassan is one of my favorite books, and I love Jacqueline Carey's novels. In those books, it feels like a deliberate choice, and the politics and geography play into the plot, as opposed to just being a useful backdrop.

Date: 2009-04-06 07:52 pm (UTC)
fire_my_spirit: (pretty dress by scholarsicons)
From: [personal profile] fire_my_spirit
Wildwood Dancing was one of my favorite books that I read last year. I'm still not quite over it. I'm excited for the sequel/companion that's out now, but I'm waiting for it to come out in paperback.

Date: 2009-04-06 08:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grammargirl.livejournal.com
Psst. Can you do me a favor and e-mail me from your work address? I've got a question for you, but they just replaced our computers and now I can't find your work addy.

Date: 2009-04-06 08:28 pm (UTC)

Date: 2009-04-06 10:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ashfae.livejournal.com
Recommend Robin McKinley's take on the story; it's a short story in her collection Door in the Hedge. She's also got a great version of the Frog Prince in there (that one's always annoyed the heck out of me, usually). I'll look into these, I'd love some retellings of this particular fairy tale!

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