Jessica Day George,
Princess of the Midnight Ball
(Bloomsbury, 2009)

With one exception, all of the recent retellings of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" have been spectacularly mediocre. There's Dia Calhoun's overtly psychological The Phoenix Dance, Suzanne Weyn's overwrought The Night Dance and Juliet Marillier's forgettable Wildwood Dancing.

Princess of the Midnight Ball blows them all out of the water. Seamless storytelling meets understated magic, sure-footed prose and surreptitious knitting in this satisfying retelling.

Yes, knitting. Don't ask me to explain, because part of the book's appeal lies in seeing how Jessica Day George takes the framework of the original and makes it her own. Suddenly, all the logic gaps, unmotivated actions and rough edges of the original are given a context in which they make sense.

As the story opens, the kingdom of Westfalin has just ended a long war. Eighteen-year-old soldier Galen has had enough violence for a lifetime and is on his way back to civilian life. En route to the capital, he encounters an odd old woman who gives him an even odder cloak and two balls of yarn: one fine and white to protect, the other strong and black to bind. And with a few enigmatic words of advice, she's gone.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king frets over both his troubled kingdom and his 12 daughters, who mysteriously wear out their slippers every third night. It soon becomes clear that the princesses are not willing participants, but rather the victims of a bargain their mother struck long ago with the King Under Stone in his twilight world. As his true intentions grow clearer, so does the princesses' peril. After several princes fail to discover the secret and die in mysterious circumstances (which, not surprisingly, incurs international hostility), it's up to one clever soldier-turned-gardener to save the princesses, the kingdom and himself from the queen's mistake and its widespread consequences.

Jessica Day George writes with the warmth and assurance of a seasoned storyteller, spinning (knitting?) a beautifully plotted and paced story that never stalls nor rushes. Without being slavishly realistic, the world of Westfalin feels solid, a deft mixture of the courtly and the common, real decisions and real consequences, good and evil.

If Princess of the Midnight Ball has one shortcoming, it's that the author is better at telling stories than creating characters. Galen and the eldest princess, Rose, are likable and sympathetic, though not highly memorable; Rose's 11 sisters, although reasonably feisty, blend into a forgettable bouquet of names. But that was probably inevitable, and the story works so well as a whole that you might not even notice.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the definitive retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." It's recommended, especially to fans of Robin McKinley, Sharon Shinn and Shannon Hale.

review by
Jennifer Mo

5 December 2009

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