Mourning carries with it a lot of sacrifices: no trips to the gardens, no sunlight, no clocks, no colors. No dancing. After their mother’s death and their father’s sudden departure for war, the twelve princesses of Eathesbury just want something to be normal and bright, like the dances their mother loved and taught them. Then they find the secret passage. It leads from their room to a beautiful gazebo with an invisible orchestra, and a strange man dressed all in black who calls himself Mr. Keeper. He invites the princesses to come there each night and dance to their hearts’ content but- as Princess Royale Azalea is about to learn- such gestures always have a price. The Keeper likes to keep things, and what he wants may just destroy everything.
I’ve mentioned several times that Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales, so I was both excited and nervous for this one to come out. I think it’s that way whenever a variation on something I love comes out. You want it so badly to be good, but there’s that niggling little fear that it won’t be, or that you might be disappointed.
Tell you what, though, I was not at all disappointed. I love this book.
Eathesbury is a very small, rather poor kingdom with a surplus of princesses and a royal family run on very strict rules (complete with subsections and headings). The princesses also have a wonderful collective imagination for Scandals, which they thoroughly enjoy and give elaborate names. This is a very hands-on sort of royalty; they have to be, because they can’t afford the extra help most of the time. They mend their dresses and worry about finances and what they eat is entirely dependant upon how much it costs to make it. That’s not something we see too often in stories about royalty. There’s a sort of expectation that everything is coming up filthy rich for anyone with a crown, but when the older princesses have genuine cause to worry about who might marry them given the rather pitiful size of their dowries, it lends a much deeper shadow to their need to find a place to dance where they won’t be caught.
Our main character is Azalea, Princess Royale and Heir Apparent of Eathesbury, and at the start of the story, just sixteen and old enough for her first ball. Due to her mother’s lingering illness, she’s also playing hostess and trying to keep her younger sisters from causing a Scandal like last year. She swears to her mother that she’ll look after her sisters, something she struggles with through the book but steps into admirably. What renders that difficult is the King. After the queen’s death, the King (or Sir, as they only ever call him) withdraws very suddenly from his daughters and breaks his own strict rules in order to avoid them, then departs for war without even saying goodbye. Lost in a sea of black clothing and covered windows, facing a full year of mourning inside the crumbling palace without even a way to keep the time, the only way the sisters keep their spirits up is by sneaking in the dancing their mother loved. Unfortunately they keep getting caught.
There are times when the need to dance seems almost frivolous, a concern that should be passing against a greater grief, but the need for that distraction is very real. It isn’t just something that they enjoy doing, it’s something that genuinely makes them happy, something that ties them to the mother they love, the mother they’ve lost. Their joy in finding the secret passageway and the pavilion through a forest that rains pearls instead of water is palpable. Even if Mr. Keeper is rather odd, the gazebo promises to be the one bright thing in their lives.
Each sister is distinct from the others, even if that occasionally lends itself to types (the prickly one, the sweet one, the smart one, etc). Azalea is, of course, the sister we see the most, and I love how we get to see her struggle and grow. There’s never a point where she really has everything under control. She has eleven younger sisters looking to her and nowhere to turn to for help, and she doesn’t always know what to do. Sometimes she does the wrong thing. She tries, though, and she does her best by them, and when it doesn’t quite work out she looks for a way to mend it (such as teaching them to mend their own dancing slippers so they can use them again and again). She’s also very aware of what it means to be the Princess Royale- that Parliament will choose her husband and she’ll have little to no say in it, because her husband will be the next king. Bramble is prickly and impulsive with a sharp tongue and a fiery temper, but everything she does, she does with passion. She holds nothing back. Clover (if you ever forget which sister is next, just go down the alphabet) is sweet and shy and lovely, the most beautiful of all the sisters and rather plagued by it, but she has a deeply hidden core of strength. Delphinium is dramatic and prone to fake-faints, while Eve always has her nose stuck in a book. Flora and Goldenrod, the twins, are a little less defined, as is Hollyhock, but the youngest four pick up the distinctions again. Ivy, who’s always hungry. Jessamine, who’s shy and quiet and almost never speaks. Kale, who bites (which cracks me up), and newborn Lily, whose distinction is that she’s still an infant.
(I have to admit, it amuses me somewhat that every retelling I’ve seen groups the princesses’ names in certain ways. Alphabetical, all flowers, all the same letter to start the names, etc. I’m not even sure why I get a kick out of it, just that I do.)
More than a story of magic and history, this is at its heart a story about family, and all the complicated emotions that come with it. It isn’t just about the sisters, it’s also about their father and the struggles that arise from everyone needed a different way to deal with things. There’s also an element of flexibility there, the importance of being able to rewrite your opinions of a person rather than clinging to them in a way that can cause injury to many. It’s about promises and oaths, and about protection. While the King is gone, the girls cling steadfastly to their pain and hurt and sense of abandonment, and continue to do so at first when he returns. Slowly, however, that has to change, whether for small concessions made to either side or for the small things being learned or understood. The King is never less than a stern figure, someone with strict rules, someone who’s not particularly good with affection- or at least not the appearance of it- but someone who, after too long trying to manage a grief that overwhelms him, is trying to reforge those connections.
And, of course, it’s a story about romance. We see quite a few gentlemen come through the palace in the guise of answering the riddle about where the princesses go each night. Most of them are only passing, funny in what makes them distinct, but those who are a steady presence are so incredibly different. Lord Teddie is a hoot. I adore him, even as being around him in person would probably make me want to kill him, but he’s so heartfelt and genuine and sincere. Fairweller, the Prime Minister, is dark and dour and stiff but with an unexpectedly sly sense of humor. Dry as dust, just like the rest of him, but as the reader we get to see the humor that Azalea in her stiff dislike of him misses. Mr. Bradford is sweet and patient and kind, with a crooked smile and perpeptually rumpled hair, who takes very well to being pelted with potatoes and being threatened at dinner. He’s forthright and a little awkward, uncertain about which path to take.
And then there’s Keeper. The first time we meet Keeper, he forces a river to rise up and keep the girls near the underground pavilion, then spins them a sad, beautiful story about being trapped. I know they need to dance, know they need the escape of just one thing going right, but you know that part of you that watches tv and wonders why no one ever calls the cops? Or waits for back up? That part of me kept watching their interactions and wondering why they kept going back. Keeper is elegant and enigmatic, but he’s also deeply, sincerely creepy. I have to admit, when he tells them the story of the girl he loved, I would have run for the exit and never returned.
I think my favorite piece of this book, aside from the very Victorian setting, is the way small bits of magic still exist. Specifically, the tea set. I love the tea set, the way it bullies people into drinking or the way the sugar teeth snap at anyone who tries to take too many cubes. It’s something small, a leftover from a time when magic was much more of a presence, as well as much more of a danger, but it very clearly illustrates how magic clings.
Entwined, by Heather Dixon, out in stores now and an absolutely lovely book that slowly unfurls to a ripping ending. Love it.
Want to win a copy? Leave a comment here for a chance to win! Open through Friday, May 13th 2011.
Until next time~