Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball
by Jessica Day George
Bloomsbury, 2009
197 pages

Ha! How's that for reading quickly? Granted, this read is not really of the same density that Bird Sense was, not by a long shot, and shorter, but still. It proves to me that I can still read and read fast. I am not sure why speed is so important to me; I think it's that old feeling that there are a lot of books out there that I want to read, so I'd better get at it. My reading time is finite. The faster I go, the more I can read. Fast doesn't always translate to a good experience, though. Overall, I think Bird Sense was a better reading experience -- but this was a lot of fun, and that's a good thing too.

The key here is that I was looking for a book specifically like this. I wanted something light, something fantasy, something entertaining, with nothing terribly dark or dangerous to distress me. Sometimes that can translate into almost unbearable fluff. And this is a fairytale retelling, which can go horribly, horribly wrong. Happily, neither is the case here.

Galen is a soldier through and through. Born to a career soldier and an army laundress, he was fighting on the front lines from the time he was fifteen and his father was killed. Now he's nineteen and the war is over, and he's done with killing. His mother had family in the capital city, and he has come to search them out, hoping to find decent work and a place to live. He finds both with his aunt and uncle, and becomes a gardener in the extensive and elaborate gardens of the King of Westfalin.

Rose and her younger sisters are the twelve princesses of Westfalin, doomed to dance their shoes to tatters every third night to fulfill a bargain their mother made. They cannot speak of their curse to anyone, and their father is driven to distraction by their disobedience and their distress. In desperation he proclaims that the prince to discover where his daughters go to dance at night can choose a princess to marry and become heir to his kingdom.

Sound familiar? Yes, this is the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. It's been a peculiar favourite of mine for a long time, and I'm happy to say that this is quite a good, occasionally ingenious retelling; well-fleshed and convincing.

When I was a kid, there was a picture book that I believe took the tale pretty much straight from Grimm in one of its forms; I was always distressed by how the clever soldier chose the eldest princess despite the fact that it was one of the younger ones who twigged to the fact that he was following them and was obviously the smarter one. As I grew older, I came to the conclusion that the soldier and the haughty eldest princess deserved each other; he was clearly a dolt. Not the case here. Galen is clever, kind, and generous, humble and noble of heart. And he knits! (This, I thought, was a very nice, very historically accurate touch, and it ends up playing a central role in the plot.) He makes a very convincing fairytale hero. Perhaps even a little too convincing; next to the other men his age in the story, he looks practically superhuman.

Rose, as the eldest princess, is the best-drawn of that group. She is brave and practical, but also (and this is due to both the source material and the take George went with) in need of rescue. I am not always put off by this in a novel; sometimes a good rescue makes for a lovely and compelling story, and while Rose is relatively helpless, she is not constitutionally helpless. She's in a really crappy situation, she's exhausted, and she's a seventeen-year-old bearing the responsibility for eleven younger sisters, all of whom are as doomed as she and some of whom are less capable of dealing with it, mentally. She bears a lot of grief, too, and she does the best she can. I think I would have been far less convinced by this story if she'd been all warrior-princess, as fun as that might have been, and as much as I'm a fan of female characters not needing to be rescued.

I've been trying to decide why I enjoyed this book in a throwaway kind of way, but didn't love it. I think where this book fell a little short of what I would consider a stellar read was the flatness of some of the characterization. The villains, for example: there are two. The King Under Stone, the supernatural villain of the piece, was irredeemably evil, and actually fairly creepy. I thought this was quite impressive, because irredeemably evil villains are not my favourite sort. But he did creep me the hell out. It was the human villain of the piece, Bishop Angier, who didn't really do much for me. He was a strawman villain, and his vibe was less dangerous than irritating. This is a shame, because there could have been interesting, nuanced things to say with him, and there were hints of it, but we never got there. That storyline is resolved in a way that is somewhat empty, if satisfying and even a bit cathartic on the surface.

Many of the characters aside from Galen, and Rose to a certain extent, are very one-note. Unlike other books I've read where that would be a fatal flaw, it didn't destroy the whole story for me. George knows how to plot, and has added such engaging detail to the bare fairytale while keeping the heart and particular detail of the original intact (not always an easy thing to do, but beautifully done in this case) that I was happy to go along for the ride. Also, and this is possibly the overarching saving grace, it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's not trying to be something it's not.

In fact, it's such a well-done faithful fairytale retelling that I'll be on the lookout for her retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which is my favourite fairytale of all time. I've yet to encounter a retelling of this one that I think does it justice, so I'm looking forward to seeing what she did with it. She has several other fairytale retellings that will be on my radar as well. I wouldn't suggest someone go out of their way to read this, perhaps, but if you're a fan of light fairytale retellings, you'll be in for a fun couple of hours with this one.


Jill said...

I'm picky about my fairytale retellings, but this one sounds like it would hit the spot!

Unknown said...

The way it follows the original is quite clever at points and feels natural to the story, and it has a distinctly "fairytale" feel without overdoing it. Plus I think you'd find it a very fast read!

I know what you mean, though. I often run up against retellings I can't stand. They don't get reviewed because I tend not to finish them!