Friday, August 31, 2012

The Twelve Dancing Princesses Wrap Up

Twelve Dancing Princesses Wrap Up

All right, so this month was pretty disappointing overall, and I’d like to look at why. We read the following:

The Night Dance by Suzanne Weyn - This adaptation combined The Twelve Dancing Princesses with the legend of King Arthur, and while I’d remembered it as being an okay book, I liked it less and less the longer I read it.

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell - This adaptation combined The Twelve Dancing Princesses with Beauty and the Beast and wasn’t too bad, all things considered, though it did depart from the source material pretty severely.

The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun – This adaptation was actually a platform for advocating the medicating of bipolar disorder, and was just God-awful.

The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler - This adaptation was one of the more simpering saccharine things I’ve ever read, and I wanted to punch the main character in the teeth. If she’d been characterized differently, this book might have been decent.

Princess of the Midnight Ball
by Jessica Day George - This adaptation is not only my favorite adaptation of this story, it’s also one of my favorite fairy tale adaptations of all time.

So with one outstanding adaptation, one decent adaptation, and three total flops, what is it about this fairy tale that makes it so seemingly destined for poor adaptation? Honestly, I think this fairy tale just plain gets underestimated. It seems so simple on the surface of it, but actually, there’s a lot going on. There’s a large cast, there’s all sorts of politics, and there are a lot of questions that need to be asked as one attempts an adaptation. It’s not all dancing and a contest love story.

Unfortunately, most of the adaptors in question didn’t seem to get that memo. Let’s use the checklist as a basis, yeah, and go backwards because of reasons.

Round out the cast – we’ll get to the princesses in a minute, but for now, let’s look at everyone else. It’s not just that there are a lot of characters who need to be fleshed out here, it’s that there are a lot of characters who add important elements to the forward progress of the story, and they seem to get continuously shunted aside. Let’s look at the princes, first off.

The idea behind this contest is that there are a boatload of princes who have tried and failed to break this curse. This is important because every prince who has tried and failed adds to the urgency and hopelessness of the situation, especially since they’ve all been killed. But Night Dance? One prince before the soldier character gets there. Phoenix Dance? A handful, if that, and none of them die. Thirteenth Princess? Doesn’t even get that far; the king puts the kibash on the whole idea before it can get started. The Princess Curse and Princess of the Midnight Ball are the only adaptations that give us a string of failed attempts with disastrous consequences, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are also the only two stories I felt invested in.

Then we have the soldier, who comes after this string of princes, and despite the fact that so many have died, is determined to try his hand at the task. And yet, as important and central as this character is, he’s barely present in the adaptations. We get Bedivere, but in Princess Curse? The character is there, but the investigation is mainly handled by the herbalist’s apprentice. Phoenix Dance, it’s taken on by the shoemaker’s apprentice. Thirteenth Princess? He needs the help of two children to really accomplish anything. Only Princess of the Midnight Ball really gives us a soldier who succeeds because he was a soldier, which is strange because that's his whole thing that sets him apart in the original.

I find it interesting that so many of the adaptations felt the need to rewrite this character, and really, that’s true across the board with a lot of things about this story. There was an awful lot of departure from the original source material, either combining it with other stories or adding elements that didn’t really need to be there. The first four novels are all guilty of this, and to me, it feels like the authors didn’t fully understand the story they were trying to tell, and rather than really delve into it and try to answer the obstacles, they tried to change huge pieces of it and hope that that might work.

And then we have the characterization of the princesses – Setting aside The Princess Curse for the time being, as that adaptation failed to characterize the princesses in a way that actually worked for the story, the three failed adaptations of this story all failed in the same big way – not one of them characterized more than two of the twelve princesses. I said it back at the beginning of the month – if you choose to retell this story, you have to be aware of the inherent cast. If you’re not up to the challenge of characterizing a cast of twelve, why are you telling this fairy tale?? It’s just sloppy, and incomprehensible to me.

Overall, I feel like the authors, excepting George and maybe Haskell, just got in over their heads. They had a partial idea that they attached to this story, but they never really attached it well enough to make it work. In the end, they all tried to do too much with it, and they strayed too far away from the original story. George kept it simple, a straightforward retelling, taking the politics inherent in the story and fleshing them out, and I think that’s why she succeeded where everyone else failed.

Read Princess of the Midnight Ball
with its so very strong recommendation, and read The Princess Curse, which comes recommended. But the other three? Don’t bother.

Next month’s fairy tale is The Little Mermaid, and boy, won’t that be fun?

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: As the crown princess, Rose is never without a dance partner. She and her eleven sisters are treated to beautiful gowns, slippers, and dances at party after party in their father’s palace. But their evenings do not end when the guests return home. Instead, Rose and her sisters must travel deep into the earth to the wicked King Under Stone’s palace. There, the girls are cursed to dance each night, even when they grow exhausted or ill. Many princes have tried – and failed – to break the spell. But then Rose meets Galen, a young soldier-turned-gardener with an eye for adventure. Together, they begin to unravel the mystery. To banish the curse, they’ll need an invisibility cloak, enchanted silver knitting needles, and of course, true love.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

So, so far this month, the reviews haven’t been good. Week 2 brought us a decent adaptation, but weeks 1, 3, and 4 were just horrendous, and really the only thing that’s kept me going this month was knowing that this wonderful, beautiful, absolutely amazing novel was waiting for me at the end of things.

I was going to start this review off with a disclaimer of sorts, another confession. I was going to admit that Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball was, whether fair or not, the gold standard to which I hold up all other adaptations of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” I no longer feel the need to do that, because this book could be a whole hell of a lot worse and still qualify as the gold standard, if the other offerings are any indication.

So instead, I will say this: I do find this book to be absolutely everything that an adaptation of this story should be, and that even if all the other novels I read this month were ten times better and had all lived up to their potential, I still don’t think they’d compare to this novel.

So what is it about this novel that earns such glowing praise? What is it about George’s adaptation that makes it this fairy tale’s be all and end all of adaptations? Well, friends, I am more than happy to tell you.

We open with a prologue that sets up this story with incredible effectiveness – Queen Maude before a man who calls himself King Under Stone, making a deal. She is agreeing to dance for the King once a month for twelve years, and in return, he will ensure that her husband’s kingdom is victorious in its current war. We learn it’s not her first deal, that she already promised twelve years of dancing in exchange for children. And we learn that the King Under Stone is devious, and Queen Maude is very short sighted and has not grasped the full implications of making deals with this man. She shoulda read Rumpelstiltskin with us last month.

In barely two pages, without relying on paragraphs of exposition, we have been introduced to the situation, the villain, and the tone of this story, and that is some impressive storytelling, ladies and gentlemen.

When the story begins in earnest, we have jumped ahead in time, some twelve years, and it is immediately clear that Queen Maude made a classic error – she bargained for victory in the war, but not swift victory, because a decade later, the war is only just ending, and what I appreciate about this adaptation that none of the others gave me, is that we see just how devastating the war was. This is really the only adaptation that takes this part of the story into consideration – the main figure in the tale is a soldier returning from war, but not until this novel has an author taken the time to show us really what that means. Night Dance tried, but there was no visible impact from the war on really anyone besides Bedivere, and even his was more the struggle of trying to fulfill the king’s dying wish than an effect of the war itself.

But in this novel, we have Galen, a soldier returning from war who gives us a very graphic and blunt view of what this prolonged war meant, for the soldiers, for the army families, for the citizens, for the land itself. Everyone suffers from war, and this is the first time we’ve ever really seen that.

As for Galen, he’s heading for the capital city post-war because he has no place else to go – his family was an army family, and they all died years ago, as the war was beginning. The only family Galen has left is an aunt and uncle in the city. So that is where he goes, battle-scarred, world-weary, and aware as few others are that Westfalin will be feeling the effects of this war for a long time yet to come.

He meets a beggar on the road, and offers her some food to eat and a chance to rest her bones. In exchange, she offers him two balls of wool – one black like iron, one white like a swan – and a dull purple cloak that she claims is an invisibility cloak. At first, Galen is hesitant to take anything from her, but then she becomes cryptic and tells him that when he is in the palace, he will have need of her gifts. No longer a slightly crazy old woman when she says these things, Galen believes her, accepts the gifts, and continues on his way.

He makes it to the city and discovers that his uncle is the chief gardener for the King, who takes his gardens very seriously, as they were beloved by the Queen. Reiner Orm offers Galen a position as an under-gardener, but only if he likewise takes the job seriously.

We shift then, to Princess Rose, and this is an example of a narrative split effectively between two perspectives. The way George does the split works because, unlike Weyn, she doesn’t overload us with characters. Excepting the prologue, because prologues follow their own rules, she keeps us to Rose and Galen, and the narrative is shared equally between them. We don’t rehash the same events just to see it from another perspective; when Rose’s POV picks up from Galen’s, the story continues moving forward, and vice versa. It’s very well done.

Through Rose, we are introduced to all the other sisters, and finally, finally, finally, praise Heaven, we have twelve different and distinct characters! Hallelujah and the saints be praised! I can remember all their names, I know where they fall in the age line-up, and when she references a name, I know immediately which character she’s talking about. Here, I’ll prove it!

Rose is the eldest, and then closest to Rose is Lily, the warrior. She can shoot a pistol, and she’s hardened because of a tragedy not spelled out until the end, but fairly easy to guess at. Then there’s Jonquil, who is very proper and little bit vain. She has a sense of entitlement, almost, not to the point of being annoying, but it’s clear she knows what’s expected of her and those around her. Those three are the older set.

Then there’s Hyacinth, who is very religious and constantly worrying over the state of their souls (for reasons we’ll get to in a moment). She is the most troubled by the dancing, and tends to worry. Next is Violet, who is very musical, and plays the piano like her life depends on it. Like Jonquil, she is very aware of the lines between royalty and not, and she shares that sense of entitlement. Then the twins, Poppy and Daisy, who couldn’t be more different. Daisy is frail and delicate, probably the most of any of them, with a tendency to swoon. Poppy, on the other hand, is incredibly strong-willed, knows her own mind, and won’t be silenced. Then there’s Iris, who is the helper. She always wants to be of assistance. Next is Lilac, who tends to tag along behind someone and become a shadow of whoever she’s with. Those six are the “in-betweens.”

Orchid, Pansy, and Petunia are the younger set. Orchid is the leader of these three, the imaginative one. Pansy is sensitive, and the dancing upsets her the most. Lily is her favorite sister, and she follows her around like a shadow. Then Petunia is the youngest, the one who is only just starting to realize that the dancing isn’t fun, but dangerous.

Boom! Without looking in the book, y’all! Jessica Day George, you are my hero, and I thank you.

Anyway, when we meet the sisters, we’re plunged right into the reality that the dancing is already going on, because our first introduction to them is when the king is berating them for wearing through their dancing slippers yet again. And for the first time this month, we see that this is a real problem rather than an annoyance. The princesses have to have shoes. But they’re destroying theirs every three days. The kingdom is nearly bankrupt, thanks to the war, and the king has to think about feeding and housing his people, and he just plain can’t afford to buy twelve new pairs of shoes every three days. He is begging his daughters to tell him what’s going on.

But they can’t, literally can’t. In the original tale, it’s left ambiguous why the girls are dancing and why they don’t tell anyone. You can read it as an enchantment, but you can also read it as twelve incredibly spoiled girls just being difficult. Here, though, the reason is clear. They are under an enchantment. They can’t break it, and they can’t talk about it, and they’ve got six more years of their mother’s deal to fulfill before they’ll be freed.

Because by this point, Queen Maude has died, danced into an early grave, with ten years still left in her deal with King Under Stone, and that deal passed to her daughters. It started out that the Queen would dance once a month. But when she missed an appointed night because she was giving birth to Rose, King Under Stone demanded she start dancing twice a month. And every time she missed another night, the frequency increased. Hence the girls now dancing every third night.

And they hate it. And because Rose is the oldest, they all complain to her. But Rose is just trying to do her best – for her father, for her sisters, for the kingdom – and of course that’s all too much to ask of one eighteen-year-old girl, and so, desperate for an escape, Rose tries her best to get away by walking in the garden. There, she is startled by Galen straight into a fountain. Auspicious first meeting, to be sure.

Whether a result of the ducking in the fountain at the approach of winter or not, Rose catches cold. And because she’s being forced to dance for hours every third night instead of resting, the cold turns into pneumonia. Slowly, one by one, all the princesses get sick, but they only make the mistake of trying to skip the dancing once. That night, malicious, shadowy figures rise up from a spot in the garden and advance on the palace until Rose appears at the window and assures them that she and her sisters are coming.

Galen is witness to this, armed by a fellow gardener named Walter with nightshade and rowan, and after the encounter, Galen is also witness to the fact that now the slippers wear out every other night, and the princesses are taking far longer to recover than they normally would. But though their father begs and pleads, the girls cannot tell him any more about the figures in the garden than they could about the slippers.

By this point, Galen has become quite preoccupied with and worried about the princesses, especially Rose, though he refuses to admit that, and so he decides to try and see the King. He gets the princesses’ doctor on his side by saying that his training in the army might make him a good scout, and eventually he gets permission to wander the palace grounds after dark and see what he can find out.

The King is desperate enough at this point that when the doctor suggests asking neighboring princes to come and try to solve the dilemma, he agrees, though he does at least put up a fuss about signing one of his daughters off as a prize. He agrees after the doctor points out that when he arranges marriages for them, he’ll be essentially doing that anyway, and this way, whoever solves the mystery will at least be clever. Which is a fair point, but I was glad that the argument was at least put in.

So princes start coming in a steady stream to try and solve the mystery, and one by one, they all fail. And one by one, they all die. I really like how George handles this – the king doesn’t have them killed, because that’s really stupid, but the deaths are still there. All accidental, all tragic, all completely innocent if they happened on their own. But because it’s every single prince who tries and fails to break the curse, the other countries are getting angry and starting to band together. And if there’s one thing everyone knows for sure, it’s that Westfalin will not survive another war.

The whisperings of witchcraft cannot be silenced, though, and eventually the Pope-equivalent for this story sends representatives to investigate, a pair that clearly believe the princesses are guilty. The kingdom is placed under Interdict, forbidding marriage or church services or any sort of religious ceremonies, so now the kingdom itself is against the king and his daughters.

I love the tension this brings to the story, as well as the urgency. Urgency from sickness is all well and good, but this kind of urgency feels much more real to me. I like that this adaptation alone of all the ones this month has shown prince after prince try, fail, and die. The dying is important – I know a lot of authors leave it out because it’s very difficult to justify, but George has done it marvelously, and I love it. The fact that princes are dying matters, and there are repercussions, and it’s just beautifully done.

Eventually, Galen can’t just sit around anymore, and he asks to be put to the test. Rose is horrified – she’s convinced he will die. But he assures her that he has a plan. And this is true. With Walter’s help and his invisibility cloak, Galen is able to shield himself from enchantment and sneak down with the princesses to their underground world. He pretends to be a good spirit, and whispers with Pansy and gets the story of how the Queen made her bargains. He collects his proof, and begins to formulate a plan.

Using needles made from the silver forest, which grew from a crucifix of the Queen’s, Galen knits the magical wool into a linked chain and asks the cook in the kitchen to boil it with nightshade and basil.

But before he can launch into action, he gets careless, and King Under Stone launches his own plan early. He kidnaps the princesses, forbidding them to return to the surface, and he throws Galen out of his realm.

We learn that King Under Stone was imprisoned by twelve magicians centuries before, and that he is trying to create twelve new magicians who can walk in the light to let him go. He got himself twelve sons with human girls. As half-human, they can walk above ground by night. He gave Queen Maude twelve daughters to be wives for his sons, and their children will be able to walk in the light and free him.

Galen works overtime to find this out without the archbishop getting in the way, which he is unfortunately very good at. But with Walter’s help (Walter being one of the original twelve magicians), Galen is able to get back to the land Under Stone, kill the King (kinda – gotta leave this open for the rest of the series!), free the princesses, and bind the gate with the magical wool strengthened by herbs and boiling, and fixed in place with a silver crucifix. The day is won, the girls are free, and Galen, though he never was in it for the prize, is allowed to marry Rose.

I adore this novel so much. It’s perfectly paced, perfectly drawn, with the right amount of urgency, and even though it’s complex, it all ties together beautifully with no loose ends. It is wonderfully, wonderfully done, and no other adaptation of this story compares (which sucks a lot when I am trying to write my own . . .)

But let’s gush more in the checklist.

Firm characterization of the princesses? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Finally! I love all these girls. I love religious Hyacinth, and Lily, who fell in love with a soldier. I love Poppy’s sass (and that she gets her own sequel!) and Pansy’s adorableness (hands down favorite moment – Galen hesitates to admit he loves Rose in the end, and this precious seven-year-old creature tells him that if Rose doesn’t want him, he can marry her. It’s the cutest thing ever). And I adore Rose, her flaws, her weariness, her quiet strength. A brilliant cast of characters.

A reason for the dancing? Perfect – payment for his deals, deals that were made with this Grand Chess Master knowing all the steps far, far in advance. I love how he’s manipulated everything for so long, knowing the Queen would come back, knowing she’d miss days and have to come more often, knowing she’d die before the payment was complete, knowing her daughters would take her place. It’s so brilliantly interconnected.

An explanation of the underground world? Yes, absolutely. It’s a prison, for both the girls and the King Under Stone. It’s where he’s been trapped for centuries, and in those centuries, it’s this little world, little realm that he’s created for himself.

Round out the rest of the cast? Jessica Day George does large casts brilliantly. If a character gets event he tiniest bit of page time, the character is well-rounded. It’s true of King Under Stone’s sons, it’s true of Walter and the old witch, it’s true of the nurse and Galen’s aunt and uncle, hell, it’s true of the baker and her daughters who are present for all of maybe ten pages! There is no character in this book who doesn’t read like a real person, and I adore it.

At its heart, this is a book about things that matter. It's not just telling a cute story about some dancing princesses. It doesn't just skirt the surface of the story. It really looks at the events that happen and really delves into why those events matter, not just to some dancing princesses, but to their father and their kingdom and the surrounding kingdom. This book does what all the others this month failed to do -- it gives the fairy tale a context and a political structure, and rather than changing elements that don't fit with what the author wants her story to be, Jessica Day George looks at the elements that are there and finds a way to make them work. That's what makes this novel so good.

This novel is the perfect adaptation of this story. It is everything I want an adaptation of this story to be. I am so incredibly grateful that George wrote this book, and it has made the rest of the month worth it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler

The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler

Target Audience: Children (9-12)

Summary: Zita is not an ordinary servant girl – she’s the thirteenth daughter of a king who wanted only sons. When she was born, Zita’s father banished her to the servants’ quarters to work in the kitchens, where she can only communicate with her royal sisters in secret. Then, after Zita’s twelfth birthday, the princesses all fall mysteriously ill. The only clue is their strangely worn and tattered shoes. With the help of her friends – Breckin the stable boy, Babette the witch, and Milek the soldier – Zita follows her bewitched sisters into a magical world of endless dancing and dreams. But something more sinister is afoot – and unless Zita and her friends can break the curse, the twelve princesses will surely dance to their deaths.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling

From utterly horrendous to thoroughly mediocre in the course of two weeks, this fairy tale is really leaving a lot to be desired in the adaptation department, but I promised to do this, and I picked the story, so here we go.

So, we start off with Zita, a servant girl in a king’s palace, except that one of the first things we discover about her is that she isn’t actually a servant girl, or at least, she wasn’t born one. In actuality, Zita is the youngest daughter of the king -- and the queen. We’re not dealing with issues of illegitimacy here (because that would have added a layer of interest and complexity to the story).

See, long story short, the King married for love, but after his wife had twelve girls and no sons that love was starting to wane, and then the Queen went and had a thirteenth daughter, and then had the audacity to die from the childbirth, so the King declared that he never wanted to see the girl again, that she wasn’t a true princess, and that she should be shunted to the kitchens and raised as a servant and never told of her true nature.

And here, we run into the first major issue I have with this book. Okay, I get the pervading idea surrounding kingdoms and princesses and fairy tale lands that a king is a king and can do pretty much whatever he wants, but the thing is, that’s not really true. Even in an absolute monarchy, there are things that a king actually can’t do, and I’m pretty sure that essentially declaring one daughter illegitimate while not doing so for the other twelve who have the same mother, is one of those things. Believe me, if that was possible, Henry II would have done it with Richard the Lionhearted, and Henry was a far more tyrannical king than this guy is.

So, yeah, this is my first major issue, and we’ve barely started the story. I just don’t see this being a scenario that would actually play out. Oh, I can see a king in his grief trying to send the infant away, trying to make this sort of declaration. But I don’t see an entire palace and kingdom just going along with it. Some councilor (which this king seems not to have) would gently remind the King that he can’t actually do that, or the Cook in the kitchen would say, “Sire, she’s your Queen’s daughter, I’m not treating her like a maid,” or one of the other princesses would say, “No, Dad, she’s our sister, she stays with us.”

But instead, in this world, everyone just accepts and goes along with this whole ridiculous thing, and the only concession we see anyone make is that, eventually, they tell Zita the truth about who she is against the king’s wishes, but that’s it. She’s a princess living as a servant, and everyone knows it, and no one does anything about it, and I’m sorry. I just don’t buy it. It just feels entirely too contrived for me, and since this is the premise for really everything that follows, that makes it truly difficult to get behind most of the rest of the story.

But anyway, I said “long story short” up there because for as simple as the story actually is at its core, it takes a full three and a half chapters for the story to get told, because Zita has to hear it in shifts, from a bunch of different servants, because apparently, the story distresses everyone so very much that no one is capable of telling the whole story at once, or indeed, telling the whole thing at all. Cue eye rolling. Eye rolling will be a common occurrence.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were a twelve year old girl, and I’d spent my life scrubbing pots and pans, and then I found out that I was actually a princess, and for no good reason had I been forced to live as a servant all my life, I think I’d be a little peeved. I think I’d be a tad miffed. I think, at the very least, I would feel very strongly the absolute unfairness of my situation, and I think that would make me a bit angry for a little while. I think I would be furious with the king, envious of the acknowledged princesses, and, when I found out that everyone had known, not told me, and just let it happen, I think I would feel hurt and betrayed by pretty much everyone around me. Now, I think, given enough time, I could get past these feelings. I think I could come to terms with them, but it wouldn’t be immediate, and I think, at the very least, the weight of the unfairness of the situation would always be with me, even if I could eventually realize that no one person held the blame for it.

Zita, though, Zita does not cycle through these emotions. No. Zita immediately forgives her father, because she recognizes the pain he must have been in. Zita thanks her fellow servants for telling her the truth and for caring for her for all these years. Zita is filled with awe and adoration to learn that she is related to the princesses, and is thrilled to learn that she has a real family. Zita makes me want to punch things.

Seriously. Zita is the most cloying, irritating, slap-worthy paragon of utter perfection that I’ve ever read, and it's not often I use that word with the inflection of a curse. She has no flaws. She never does anything wrong. She always reacts exactly the way she’s supposed to, she never gets angry or jealous or petty or spiteful, she’s a paragon of sympathy and empathy and shining forgiveness. If this book was made into a movie, and you could pull actors through time to play the parts, Zita would be played by Shirley Temple. This is a not a compliment.

I hate this character. I hate her because she’s perfect. I hate her because she doesn’t act the way a twelve year old in her situation would act -- she’s always better than that. She’s above such negative emotions, such flawed reactions. And I hate her because she does nothing badly, has no character flaws, and everyone instantly loves her. Her sisters find out she’s been told she’s a princess? They find a way to secret her up to their room every night, dress her up like a doll, teach her to dance, and argue about whose bed she’s going to sleep in. She hits a stable boy in the face with a stick and almost takes out his eye? He laughs about it, and forgives her because she wasn’t aiming for his face. Then he becomes her best friend! Cook, who doesn’t like anyone? Has a soft spot for Zita. Nurse, who would skin the princesses alive if she found out about the secret nights Zita spends with the princesses? Finds out, but it’s fine, because it’s Zita. The King, who sent her to the kitchens because he couldn’t stand the sight of her? Spends one scene telling her stories about her dead mother, and gives her a book of poetry as a gift.

Cassie, who spent two agonizing days reading this book for the second time in her life? Wants to punch Zita in the frickin’ teeth.

Seriously. I don’t think I could not stand this girl more if I made a conscious effort. Which is a problem, because she’s the narrator, in case I didn’t mention that. Zita is the one telling the story, which means there’s no escape.

But back to that story, Zita, along with really everyone else in the world, starts to notice something strange going on with the princesses. At first, it’s just that none of them will speak to any suitors who come to visit. Princes come from all over, but the minute the princesses meet them, silence. This is infuriating to their father, who thinks they’re just being overly picky and spoiled, but the truth is, the girls actually cannot speak. They try, but they are physically unable. Papa doesn’t buy this, and then, when they start wearing through their dancing shoes, he goes nearly apoplectic, convinced that they’re out to ruin him or punish him or something along those lines.

Zita, privy to the late night whispers of her sisters, knows that they, too, are beginning to despair. They know they have to marry. They know there are a lot of them, and their kingdom isn’t rich, and marrying princes is really their only avenue in life. But the princes are fast disappearing because the princesses won’t talk to them. The girls are getting desperate, and worried.

Now, Aurelia, the eldest, has fallen in love with a soldier (love at first sight, by the way, of course), and she’d worried that her affliction will mean she can never be with him. Zita unable to stand the sight of her sister’s distress, promises to find a way to get her sisters husbands, and she promises that she’ll never allow a boy to kiss her until Aurelia has first been kissed. I’m dry-heaving from the sickening sweetness of it all. Also a fairly common occurrence for this novel.

So, Zita is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery with her sisters, and she enlists the help of Breckin, that stableboy I mentioned before who she hit in the face with a stick, and who is now her best friend. They have to meet in secret because he’s a boy, and apparently that’s threatening, and so on one of their secret meetings in the woods, they come upon the house of a witch. This is unusual because when Aurelia was born, the king outlawed witches and magic so that no one would put a curse on any of his children. This seems a bit extreme to me, but then this is the guy who declared his youngest daughter a servant because her mother died, so whatever.

This also brings up a fairly unsettling point. The way it’s described in the book, the king’s declaration makes practicing magic illegal. Fair enough, no problems. But, when the mysterious soldier comes to town, he makes some comment about how different this kingdom feels from his own because there’s no magic in it. So, what, did the king, purely by virtue of his declaration, actually banish magic as an entity? Because that’s a bit terrifying to me. The thing is, the way that magic exists and works in this world is never clearly defined, and because we’re lacking that definition, there are some troubling implications that go unchecked.

Anyway, Breckin and Zita meet this witch, Babette, who was an old friend of the Queen’s, and has hidden herself away for twelve years. Now that Zita has shown up with these tales of what’s happening in the palace with the girls, Babette wants to help. She believes there’s a curse at work, and she enlists Zita and Breckin to find out what it is and do their part to counter it. So, she begins to teach them simple magic – which, surprise! Zita is really, really good at! – specifically, an invisibility-like spell where they make it so that people just don’t notice them.

With Babette’s help, Zita also realizes that the hot chocolate her sisters give her to drink each night is drugged, and that’s why she’s never woken up when they do whatever it is they do to wear out their slippers. Armed with her spell and the new knowledge, Zita pretends to drink the chocolate that night, then follows her sisters as they use a dumbwaiter to descend below the depths of the castle into a magical underground world. Zita and Breckin follow them and watch as they dance, enchanted, all night.

Desperate now to find a way to break this enchantment, Zita, Babette, and Breckin all ignore the obvious solution – go and tell the king what they’ve discovered – and instead decide to forge a letter in the king’s hand inviting princes from the surrounding areas to come solve the mystery, because why go with the easy solution when you can come up with one that incredibly convoluted and almost certain to go wrong? Zita gets caught by the king, and when confronted, for some reason decides again not to tell him about the enchantment, but rather work on a way to smuggle Mikel (Aurelia’s soldier, and Breckin’s older brother) into a position guarding the princesses, so he can follow them and free them.

For some reason, both Breckin and Zita have to go with Mikel all the way to the enchanted world each night – and I just have to point out that Zita alone was able to raise and lower herself and Breckin in the dumbwaiter all on her own, but that Mikel, ten years older and a seasoned soldier, can’t handle the three of them. Chew on that, folks – but they don’t really learn anything new.

By this point, the princesses are so ill that they’re no longer conscious each day. They “wake” only to dance, and it’s not real waking. But what Mikel starts to do, for no reason other than it feels right, is to sit with Aurelia and talk to her each day about these “dreams” that he has, where the two of them are walking through a magical forest made of gold, and at the end of each of these tellings, all girls open their eyes for a few seconds and cry. I don’t know. It’s weird.

So, this happens for a few nights in a row as the story just goes nowhere. They’re stuck, and so we’re stuck. Until, gasp! Zita makes a mistake! She’s so sleep deprived from worry that she forgets to do her not-noticing spell when she uses the dumbwaiter, so the evil watcher no one’s been able to identify sees her and realizes that these three have caught onto the evil plot! Finally! Zita did something wrong!

Except, oh no, wait. Turns out that was exactly what needed to happen because it means the watcher has exposed herself, and so the confrontation can finally happen — I mean, are you kidding me at this point?? Even when Zita screws up, she’s still perfect! Seriously, I want to stab things!

The watcher’s awareness is exactly what Mikel needs to break through the enchantment on the girls, and he’s able to spirit the princesses away to safety, except that he and Breckin and Zita don’t make it, and they almost die as the enchantment collapses around them, but then they don’t. And then, we learn that the culprit behind all this is the princesses’ nurse, which kinda comes out of left field a little. I mean, the foreshadowing is there, but it’s not terribly well done.

But it turns out that the nurse is actually this girl who had a thing for the king, and was betrayed when he fell in love with someone else, and so she cursed the Queen to only bear daughters, and convinced the King to outlaw magic so that no one would find her and stop her. Except that Babette laid a protection spell on Aurelia first, and that spell, I freaking kid you not, was “The Protection of Love.” Seriously, I’m gonna type this next paragraph word for word because otherwise, you’ll think I’m exaggerating, but no, it is really this ridiculously cliched and disgusting:

“The Protection of Love. Do you know that charm? The more she is loved, the stronger her shield. And when she is loved by someone with his whole heart, and he would give his life for her, no spell can hold her.”

. . .

I have no words.

No, that’s a lie. I’ve still got plenty to say.

Anyway, in the end, Mikel has broken the enchantment, and the king sacrifices himself to defeat the witch, but not before telling Zita he was wrong to banish her, and that he does love her, and then it’s happily ever after, which includes Zita being elevated to official princess and still getting to have her romance with a stableboy because, you know, it’s that kind of fairy tale, and there hasn’t been a hint of politics in this story yet, so why start now?

Let’s just go to the checklist and end this, yeah?

Firm characterization of the princesses? Not at all. Again, it’s eldest-youngest, and here’s what pisses me off about that more with this adaptation than with others. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is pretty much one of the largest cast fairy tales out there. There are twelve princesses. You can’t get around that. It’s right there in the title. Twelve. And yet, for some reason, that wasn’t enough for Zahler – no, she needed to add a thirteenth. Really? It wasn’t possible to retell this story and make Zita one of the twelve already there? See, all that accomplishes is that when the seemingly inevitable oldest-youngest characterization comes up, we have eleven totally uncharacterized characters instead of ten. It’s ridiculous, and it’s infuriating, and it pisses me off almost as much as Zita herself does. No point.

A reason for the dancing? Yes, and this is actually where this book gets a point from me. I’m totally behind the set-up of the dancing here. I wish it had been introduced a little better, but the actual reason behind the enchantment? I like it a lot. A jilted lover doing everything she can to turn the king against his queen and then find a reason to keep close to him. The Nurse keeps the girls from being able to talk to suitors because if they get married, she has to leave. She forces them to dance so they’ll be ill so she’ll have another reason to stay. This is a great backstory, and I can get behind it.

An explanation of the underground world? Not as much of one as I would have liked, but I do like that it’s a dreamworld born into existence by the princesses themselves and their desires. That bit was cleverly done.

Round out the rest of the cast? If we ignore Zita and the underdeveloped princesses, I actually like this cast a lot. I like Mikel, I like Breckin, I like the kitchen staff, and I think the King actually has the potential to be a really interesting character, though I’m not sure that was done on purpose. I think he’s just poorly motivated, and I’m just reading too deep psychologically into those poor motivations and making out more than what’s actually there, but hey. Books belong to their readers, right? Except I don’t really want this one, thanks all the same. So . . . partial points.

But yeah, this book . . . it’s just one tired fairy tale cliche after another, and it’s narrated by the world’s biggest Mary Sue who has absolutely zero character growth from start to finish. I mean, where would it come from? She was already perfect when we started out – there was nowhere for her to go.

And the worst part about it is, I actually do think there’s a decent story in here somewhere. It’s just that that decent story has gotten completely obscured by the suffocating cloud of glitter and rainbows that is Zita’s cloying Mary-Sue-like perfection. I hate that Zita’s a thirteenth princess, I really do. I wish that Zita had been just a servant, tackling this mystery out of love for the princesses, or I wish that Zita had been an illegitimate daughter, coping with the crisis of identity that comes with that position in reality – a foot in both worlds but not really belonging to either. That would have made this an interesting story.

And I mean, yes. I’m aware that this book is intended for a younger audience, the 9-12s, and that Zita is supposed to inspire the readers to be more like the kind of person that she is, and that people will argue that I should make allowances for that, but I’m sorry, no. I’m a children’s librarian. I work with nine- to twelve-year-olds on a regular basis, and I couldn’t help but imagine what my book discussion group would have to say about this book if we were to discuss it, and let me tell you, it’s not good. Of course, my book discussion group is currently mostly 10-year-old boys who would take one look at this cover and refuse to touch this book with a ten foot pole, but that’s neither here nor there. The point still stands.

And the point is this: writing for a younger audience is not an automatic pass on story structure and character development. You know what other books were written for nine- to twelve-year-olds? Bridge to Terabithia. Number the Stars. A Wrinkle in Time. Your argument is invalid.

This has not been a good month for fairy tale adaptations thus far. Luckily I know for a fact next week gets much, much better, so I’m grasping onto that with both hands. See you then.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun

The Phoenix Dance by Dia Calhoun

Target Audience: Children/YA

Summary: On the island of Faranor in the kingdom of Windward, twelve princesses dance their shoes to shreds each night. No one knows why. Not the king and queen, not the knights, lords, or ladies-in-waiting. When the queen blames the royal shoemaker, his apprentice Phoenix Dance puts her life at risk to solve the mystery. She braves magic spells, dragons, evil wizards, and the treachery of the princesses themselves. As Phoenix faces these dangers, she finds herself caught in her own dangerous dance inside herself – a dance of darkness and light, a dance that presents her with the greatest challenge of her life.

Type of Adaptation: Retelling with a perspective shift

Okay, confession time. I first read this book about a year ago, when I was first contemplating this project. After finishing it, I immediately started setting down my notes on the book because I swore to myself that I would never put future me through the agony of reading this absolutely god-awful novel ever again.

So, no. I didn’t reread this. This review will be put together from those notes, my all-too-strong-still memories, and a very fast skim of this book because good Lord is it horrific.

So! With that ringing endorsement out of the way, let’s get to tearing this book apart, shall we?

On the first page, the first sentence, actually, we learn that the book’s title, The Phoenix Dance, refers not to the dance of the sisters or to some metaphoric resonance about the cyclic rebirth of the phoenix in mythology or anything like that, but to the main character’s name. Yeah. Her name is Phoenix Dance. Phoenix. Dance. Clue #1 that Cassie should have shut the book and walked away.

Anyway, Phoenix’s unrivaled dream is to be a shoemaker’s apprentice. That’s what she wants more than anything else in the world. Unfortunately, her three aunts won’t let her apply for the apprenticeship. Why? Because they feel it’s beneath Phoenix’s lofty position in society as a member of their family. Understandable, if they’re nobility or minor royalty or some kind of thing that would give them a reason to look down on tradesmen. But they’re not. They’re actually borderline poverty, but they’re apparently “descended from kings” generations ago. Yeah, guess what? So I am, to both the French and English throne. Doesn’t mean I’m gonna go staking my claim to a title any time soon.

So what do these lofty aunts want Phoenix to do, as a descendent of royalty or some such nonsense? Be an actor! Because that’s not a profession that’s ever been seen as low class! Seriously, this whole conflict that makes up the first two chapters is utterly incomprehensible to me. She can’t be an apprentice to the royal shoemaker and make slippers for the princesses, but she can dance in the street for any random passerby? I mean, I don’t buy this for an instant, but I’m supposed to, because this conflict is what sets up practically the entire novel!

But finally, the poor aunts have no other choice because apparently nowhere else will take Phoneix as an apprentice, so she becomes a shoemaker’s apprentice. And it’s there that the mystery is first introduced – the shoemaker is furious because the king is accusing him of shoddy craftmanship. Why? Because somehow, the princesses manage to wear through his slippers in a single day.

This is how Phoenix gets an in. It turns out the girl has an inordinate amount of energy, and she ends up being one of the only apprentices with the stamina to get through a night’s sewing of slippers, and so she’s chosen to go along and help deliver them.

So, Phoenix gets to meet the princesses . . . who are all named after seashells. No, I’m not kidding. I can’t make this stuff up. The princesses’ names in this adaptation are: Aurantica, Myadora, Semele, Engina, Pythia, Tigrina, Lucina, Osea, Coral, Natica, Norris, and Batissa.

I’m just gonna move on because I really don’t have anything more to say about that.

And then, Phoenix has a nervous breakdown. She’s fitting the girls for their slippers, and they begin to dance, and she’s so moved by it that she starts laughing hysterically. This doesn’t come completely out of the blue; we’ve gotten references before to Phoenix’s “fits” and “moods,” and this one is described as being uncontrollable. But it, of course, attracts notice, and Phoenix doesn’t leave the palace before being told by the youngest princess – who has premonitions – that “something is wrong” with her.

Anyway, after the girls wear through their shoes yet again, the Queen is pissed enough that she essentially fires the shoemaker and holds a contest to replace him. Phoenix is determined to enter.

At this point, Calhoun introduces a subplot where she tries to add politics to the mix but doesn’t do it very well. Apparently, Phoenix has a friend who belongs to an organization who are trying to abolish the monarchy, which isn’t going over terribly well, as you might imagine.

And here we start to run in to one of Calhoun’s biggest problems with this novel – she’s telling three different stories, but none of them ever really connect to each other. There’s this political story, and the twelve dancing princesses story, and the story that we’ll get to in a minute, but they all exist independently of one another. Oh, she tries to tie them together, but she does so very very poorly, and each jump between stories is incredibly jarring. It always makes me feel like she followed one for so many chapters, and then suddenly remembered there were other plots happening, and she should probably go back to one of them. This problem will come up again later in our discussion.

Anyway, once that subplot is awkwardly dismissed, we watch Phoenix go further and further into one of her “fits,” and at this point it becomes pretty clear to anyone with any background at all with mental disorders that Phoneix is bipolar. What she is experiencing here is a manic episode, where she is creative in an uncontrollable frenzy. From all accounts, this is actually a pretty accurate representation of one of these episodes, so I can’t discredit Calhoun for this aspect of her portrayal.

Anyway, Phoenix’s episode produced the sketches she needed for the shoes for the contest, so she and the other apprentices who are helping her set about making them, and at some point in here, Phoenix wins herself the invisibility cloak from the witch, for helping her out of a crisis, and then we enter a period of the novel where Phoenix experiences the down side of her episodes – she’s lethargic and listless and bursts into tears without warning. Meanwhile, her friend who was in prison is charged and released, and the princesses are starting to get sick. Oh, and she won the contest, of course.
Now, up til this point, this has been just sort of meh. I mean, I’m not really on board with it or captivated by it, but it’s not horrendous. But then, the healer comes in.

Okay, so this is a fantasy world, right? That ambivalent, vaguely Medieval, fairy tale time and place world, and words like “bipolar” are a bit jarring in that context. So when the healer comes to diagnose Phoenix, we can’t have her say, “You’re bipolar” or “you’re manic depressive.” I totally get that. I can think, though, of any number of names one could give this disorder that would sound like something a fairy tale healer might come up with, and yet still convey the seriousness of the disorder.

“The Illness of the Two Kingdoms” isn’t one of them. And no, I’m not shitting you here. That’s the name Calhoun has given bipolar disorder. “The Illness of the Two Kingdoms,” wherein the ill vacillate between “The Kingdom of Brilliance” and “The Kingdom of Darkness.”  It’s just . . . trivializing.

This is where the book just completely loses me. Because this is where every other story that got introduced takes a decided backseat. Forget the political intrigue that was actually almost interesting. Forget “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” supposed retelling that got me to pick up the book in the first place. From here on out, this book is entirely about a girl struggling with bipolar disorder.

And I want to be clear about something here – I have no problem with that. I am 100% behind the idea that we should write books aimed at children that are about children with disorders and mental illness. Those books should exist. But if Calhoun wanted to write a book about the struggle of living with bipolar disorder, then she should have written a book about the struggle of living with bipolar disorder. She should have set it in the real world and made that the story’s focus, rather than try and shoehorn that issue into a poorly constructed veneer of a fairy tale adaptation.

The tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” all but disappears at this point in the novel, despite the fact that Phoenix is, ultimately, supposed to take the place of the soldier and rescue the princesses. Every once in a while, Calhoun jerks the narrative back to the fairy tale, again with no other motivation than it’s been too long since we’ve mentioned the princesses, but that story gets lost under the crushing weight of Phoenix’s egocentrism and mental illness. Oh, Calhoun tries to tie the two together with some explanation in the end about how the evil magician forcing the princesses to dance each night essentially takes them through the steps of the disorder – flying high in “The Kingdom of Brilliance” when they dance each night, then descending into “The Kingdom of Darkness” during the day. But it’s a half-assed connection and it just doesn’t cut it for me.

I think a lot of the reason I just plain don’t buy the connection is because Phoenix’s motivation is never driven by a desire to help the princesses. She’s in it for herself, from the beginning. She designs the slippers in the beginning because she wants to be the shoemaker. She agrees to try and solve the mystery of the dancing because she wants to find a magical cure for her illness that she discovers happens to be in the same place as the princesses’ dancing. Everything she does is designed to get her what she wants, and to be honest, that’s why Phoenix does not work as a stand-in for the soldier.

What sets the soldier apart for me, at least in the compelling adaptations, is the idea that he’s different from the other men who try to solve the mystery. He wins the cloak because he’s kind-hearted to the woman on the road. He thinks about others. He wants to solve the mystery to help the princesses, not for the reward. I don’t get those qualities from Phoenix, not even a little. She is self-centered, selfish, and egocentric from start to finish.

And that’s another thing – I just plain don’t like this girl! I really don’t. I kind of hate her. Along with self-centered, selfish, and egocentric, she’s annoying, whiny, never stops to think of the consequences her actions will have, and treats her friends and family like crap through the whole story. And then, in the end, there are no consequences! By the end of the novel, she is a national hero, she's saved the kingdom, defeated the evil wizard, and she wins a title for her aunts and lots of money and keeps the position as shoemaker, and to top it all off in pissing me off, she gets the guy and keeps her best friend, despite the fact that she treated them horribly both deliberately and just out of sheer thoughtlessness on more than one occasion. All it takes is a half-apology and an explanation of “The Illness of the Two Kingdoms made me do it,” and everyone not only dismisses every bit of bad behavior, they essentially reward her for it. And that pisses me off.

I know a kid, and he’s high-functioning autistic, and when he was younger, he was a little shithead because his parents refused to discipline him for anything. He got away with a ridiculous amount of crap because every little thing he did was rationalized away with “You have to excuse it, he’s autistic.”  Half of the stuff he pulled wasn’t because he was autistic, though, it was because he was nine-year-old boy and he knew he could get away with it because his parents wouldn’t call him to task. Having a mental disorder is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, and it pisses me off when it’s treated like one.

And that leads us to the real problem I have with this novel. Its treatment of bipolar disorder, specifically the treatment and so-called “cure.” The trivializing name give to it aside, I was on board with Calhoun’s depiction for quite a while. I appreciated that when Phoenix was first diagnosed, the healer said clearly that there was no cure.

But then, Calhoun took one healer, gave her a matter of weeks, and all of a sudden, what has she discovered but a potion that “fixes” Phoenix’s disorder, if only Phoenix will take it as directed. Years of pharmaceutical research by dozens if not hundreds of scientists, all boiled down to that one, “magical” cure. And then, adding insult to insult, Calhoun introduces a second magical cure, this one literally a magical cure, if Phoenix can only get to it. And she does. It happens to be the same thing controlling those dancing princesses that this novel was billed to be about. And the only reason Phoenix doesn’t get it is because she has to destroy it to free the princesses and save them and herself. But she could have had a magical cure! It existed!

And I lose all respect for the author with that. Seriously. Ignoring the fact that this book devolves very clearly into what Calhoun’s opinion on medicating bipolar disorder is, you cannot write a book about the struggle of living with bipolar disorder if you paint a picture of a magical cure that just plain and simple does not exist. Every other accurate depiction is rendered meaningless with that. It’s insulting, and it’s infuriating, and I have a major problem with it.

Dia Calhoun lives with bipolar disorder, and I respect that, and I understand that, therefore, this is an issue near and dear to her heart. But there are ways to represent it for a young audience, and there are ways to write about it in a meaningful way, and she did not do either one of those things.

But those infuriating aspects aside, let’s take the novel to the checklist, shall we? I know I didn’t delve too much into the actual story in this novel, nor to how it tied in the Twelve Dancing Princesses, but to be fair, neither did it. Anyway.

Firm characterization of the princesses? Not even a little bit. Again, oldest-youngest, and nothing in between. And even those two were incredibly poorly done. The motivation behind the oldest princess’s silence was never really clear, and the major characterization given to the youngest was that she didn’t like yellow. Seriously. They made a really big deal out of that. So, no. And while, like with The Princess Curse, it could be argued that this isn’t the princesses’ story, I’ll come back with the argument that with Reveka, it felt like a conscious choice to leave them vague. Here, it was just one more thing that fell by the wayside.

A reason for the dancing? They were under an evil spell. Why they were under the spell was . . . less clear. Something to do with revenge on the Queen? I’m really not sure. It’s not clearly defined.

An explanation of the underground world? Well, it wasn’t an underground world so much as a ship out in the middle of the ocean, but there was a decent explanation behind it. Kinda.

Round out the rest of the cast? Ugh. I couldn’t stand any of them. They were there, and there were plenty of them, but there were no likeable characters in this novel. No one was clearly defined or drawn, no one had any real motivation, and I just didn’t like anyone. So no point here, either.

I picked up this book because I thought it’s premise had a lot of potential – tell the story from the perspective of the shoemaker. That could be interesting. I still think so. I wish someone would do it.

I had to force myself to finish this book. It was one of the most frustrating things I have ever read before. It was tedious, incomprehensible, and infuriating. Apart from the author’s outrageous treatment of a serious illness, the story is just incredibly poorly told. In the end, I hate to sound harsh, but The Pheonix Dance is not compelling, not interesting, not accurate, and just plain not worth your time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

Target Audience: Children/YA

Summary: Twelve princesses suffer from a puzzling – and downright silly – curse. Ridiculous though the curse may be, whoever breaks it will win a handsome reward. Sharp-witted Reveka, an herbalist’s apprentice, has little use for princesses, with their snooty attitudes and impractical clothing. She does, however, have use for the reward money, which could buy her a position as a master herbalist. But curses don’t like to be broken, and Reveka’s efforts lead her to deeper mysteries. As she struggles to understand the curse, she meets a shadowy stranger (as charming as he is unsettling) and discovers a blighted land in desperate need of healing. Soon the irreverent apprentice is faced with a daunting choice – will she break the curse at the peril of her own soul?

Type of Adaptation: Combination Retelling

For the second week in a row, we get two fairy tales for the prince of one! In this instance, we’re combining Twelve Dancing Princesses with Beauty and the Beast, and let me just say, if someone had told me they wanted to combine those two tales, I think I would have quirked a skeptical eyebrow in their direction. But I really have to hand it to Haskell – she made it work.

We open with Reveka, an herbalist’s apprentice, who is in trouble with the Princess Consort because she added cabbage to the princesses’ nightly bathwater. And right from the get-go, we are interested in this story. Seriously. That’s one hell of a hook.

As it turns out, Reveka added cabbage because cabbage is supposed to have curse-breaking properties, and she was trying to do her bit to solve the princesses’ curse. It’s important to note that her father has forbidden her to do anything of the kind.

So, right off the bat, we’re approaching this story from a different direction, and I love it. Rather than give us a chapter or two of exposition, Haskell starts us in hip-deep in the story. There’s this huge air of mystery surrounding the princesses and what their curse is and why Reveka is trying to break it.

So the exposition starts in earnest in chapter two. We learn that Reveka is the daughter of a great military mind who now works for the Prince and Princess Consort. I’m a bit confused as to why we have a Prince and Princess Consort in this story as opposed to a King and Queen, but whatever. I’m willing to let it slide.

Anyway, Reveka did not grow up with her father. Her mother died shortly after her birth and her father was off being a general, and so Reveka spent most of her childhood in a convent being raised and schooled by nuns, and her relationship with her father is a relatively new one. As such, they don’t really know how to act around one another, though it’s clear that the familial love is still there.

The kingdom, Sylvania, is in a bit of trouble because its twelve princesses and under a curse that, on the surface, is really rather silly. They dance through their shoes each night. But the Prince is fairly certain that there’s more to it than that, so he’s declared that any man who can solve the mystery will win the hand of one of the princesses in marriage, and any woman who can solve the mystery will win a princess’s dowry. That last bit is why Reveka is trying to solve the curse. It’s not out of love for the princesses or patriotism for her country. She just wants the money. With that kind of money, she could buy a place at a convent, start an herbery of her own, and never again have to worry about being under anyone’s thumb.

This is a fresh new approach to this story, and I love it. I love that the contest has been in place for quite a while when we enter the story. I love that breaking the curse, from our protagonist’s standpoint, is not about the princesses. She couldn’t really care less about any of them – she finds them rude and irritating, and it’s made clear from the start that the emphasis in this adaptation is really not on them.

The problem Reveka faces is that her father has refused to allow her to officially participate in the contest, because up to this point, everyone who has tried to break the curse has either disappeared (the handsome young men) or fallen into a comatose sleep from which no one has awakened (the old men, boys, and all the women). The general does not want either fate to befall his daughter, so he has made it quite clear that she is not permitted to join the contest.

This doesn’t stop Reveka, though. She works with Marjit, the bathwoman, to add different herbs to the princesses’ baths each night, hoping to break their curse. She works with Adina, the healer in charge of the sleepers, with different concoctions, hoping to rouse them from their enchanted slumber. And all the while, she is constantly focused on that goal of the dowry and her own herbery.

And then, she catches two separate breaks. One, she catches her fellow apprentice with an ancient list of ways to achieve invisibility, and they agree to work together to try and break the curse. And two, Reveka is chosen to carry the princesses’ posses to their rooms one night. This allows her to eavesdrop on their conversations, in the hopes that she might hear something important. What she hears is a cryptic conversation concerning the betrothed of one of the princesses who recently disappeared after trying to break the curse. It’s clear that the princesses know exactly what has happened to him, and where he is.

After hearing this, Reveka decides that the best way to find out more information is to slip early into the princesses’ room and hide so that she can spy on them as they do whatever it is they do to wear through their shoes. Unfortunately, her fellow apprentice has had the same idea, and while they both hide before the princesses get there, the princesses routinely search the room for spies, and they find Didina, feed her a potion, and then slip away to their magical realm.

Reveka manages to get to Didina before she slips into sleep, and she is able to give Reveka some of the ingredients in the potion, but then she falls into the enchanted sleep, and there is nothing Reveka can do. She hides once more, waiting for the princesses to return, and when they do, she overhears important information – the princesses are split on continuing to give the potion to those who try and solve the mystery, and the threat of a horrifying marriage is hanging over their heads.

Now more determined than ever to break the curse and wake the sleepers, Reveka ramps up her attempts to create a means of invisibility, and ends up calling on Marjit, who happens to be a witch. Marjit works with Reveka and gives her the help she needs to weave a cap of invisibility from fern leaves, and as soon as she’s certain it has worked, she follows the princesses to the underground land they visit.

Ever the herbalist’s apprentice, when she finds herself in a land where the trees are made of precious metals and the plants are different from anything she’s ever known, she starts collecting samples as surreptitiously as possible. She’s so busy with this that she almost misses the launching of the boats, but she manages to climb into one just in time. And in looking at the rowers, Reveka discovers what has become of all those young men who have mysteriously disappeared.

When they disembark, Reveka finds that they have arrived at a large and impressive palace that is the home of a zmeu – a supposed demon who is half-dragon, half-human. And now Reveka is getting answers left and right. The zmeu, Lord Dragos, goes down the line of princesses, oldest to youngest, and asks them each a question: Will you consent to marry me, or will you dance? And each princess, without fail, chooses the dance. Dance through their shoes every night, or marry him, that is the choice the demon offers.

Except that Reveka observes some tenderness in this supposed demon. He seems to get no joy out of the dance or his request. At this point, the princesses have been forced by their father into iron shoes each night, in the hopes that that will keep them from wearing through their slippers. But all it does is put the girls into pain, and Reveka observes that Lord Dragos feels that pain as well. He is tender, and gentle, and acts with real regret for the situation they are in.

When Reveka follows the princesses back to their room at the end of the night, she learns more. She learns that the curse will be broken if one of the princesses agrees to marry the zmeu or if all twelve dance every night without fail for twelve years. If one girl fails to dance even once, she must become the zmeu’s wife. She learns that anyone who follows them down to the underground world is taken by Lord Dragos, forced to eat the food of the underworld, and bound in service to him. She learns that the girls took to dousing their spies with sleeping potions in an attempt to save them from that fate.

Reveka starts to go to the Princess Consort with all that she’s learned, but she realizes that though she knows more definitely the parameters of the curse, she doesn’t have a way to break it, or to wake the sleepers. She vows to return every night until she has an answer.

However, this plan is thwarted when her father gets it into his head to follow the princesses and try to free them. He manages to dig a tunnel in and swim the lake, and so he is outside the rules of what happened to the other men. He cannot be claimed by the princesses and find a spot serving Lord Dragos. He has forfeited his life by his arrival. The moment Lord Dragos says this, Reveka knows she has to act.

It’s a leap of faith, what she does next. She’s counting on the tenderness she glimpsed from him before. She’s counting on the fact that she fully understands the nature of the curse. She’s counting on the fact that Lord Dragos might just also be the mysterious man she’s met a time or two the human world. But what she does next is the stuff of fairy tale courage. She steps forward, removes her cap, and announces that Lord Dragos can let all the others go, for she will consent to be his wife.

And just like that, we transition from Twelve Dancing Princesses to Beauty and the Beast, the sacrifice of the young maiden, taking her father’s place in the home of a beast. Even the promise of marriage to break the curse carries over. Except that it’s not just her father she’s saving – it’s all of them. Her father, the princesses, the men, the sleepers. Reveka gives up everything she’s ever known to save this group and a country that may or may not deserve it. It’s a wonderful moment.

Once the curse has been broken and the others have been released, Reveka learns that her suspicions were correct – Dragos is the mysterious man she’s been flirting with in the world above. And she learns other things, too, like why Dragos needed a willing bride, and how the princesses came to strike their deal with him. See, the lands of the underworld need a Queen. Without one, the lands are dying. But it’s difficult to get a human girl to consent to marry a dragon-man, so most wives are won through trickery. The eldest princess stumbled upon the world and ate its food, and then bargained her sisters into the dancing in an effort to save herself.

But, we learn, the breaking of the curse isn’t so simple as we would hope. The dancing is over, yes, and the princesses are free, but the sleepers still sleep. Their slumber wasn’t Dragos’s doing, and he has no power over it. Reveka feels cheated, and she is determined to continue her work to find a way to wake them.

Before he left, her father promised that he would find a way to free her from the underworld, and Reveka knows the story of Hades and Persephone – she’s not eating anything. She wants to help the dying world, but she doesn’t want to bind herself to it if there’s a possibility she can escape. Too young yet to marry Dragos outright, she comes to regret more and more the promise that she made, as they reality of what she promised fully comes to rest on her shoulders.

She wants to save Dragos’s dying world, but she wants to free the sleepers, too, and she doesn’t know if she can do both. She is torn between the two worlds, and Dragos becomes more and more frustrated with her refusal to eat his food, for only in eating the food will she be able to heal his land.

The longer the novel goes, the more it ventures away from the initial fairy tale, and the more complex it becomes as it sets up its sequel, so I’m not going to try and summarize all of it here. Suffice it to say, in the end, Reveka’s father tries to free her, he gets caught, she saves him again by finally eating the food (a pomegranate, amusingly), and in coming into her full power as Queen, she is also given the way to wake the sleepers, but at a cost – Dragos throws her out. There’s a reason, and it’s set up very nicely, and I’m excited to see how book two will play out with this emerging dynamic.

But it was the Twelve Dancing Princesses we came to read, so that’s the part of the novel we’ll focus on as we move to the checklist.

Firm characterization of the sisters? No. Actually, I don’t think we ever even get everyone’s name, and we certainly don’t really get any way to keep them straight. And I’m fine with that. Seriously, for the way this adaptation was structured, this works. We’re in Reveka’s head, first person, and she’s a servant. The princesses have never bothered to get to know her, and she’s returning that disregard. Reveka doesn’t know how to keep the princesses straight, and they really aren’t an important part of the story. Their curse is far more interesting than who they individually are. And I like that. It fits really well with Reveka’s established personality and the way that she views the princesses.

Actually, it fits in nicely with the way the country views them, too. Unlike most retellings, these twelve girls aren’t full sisters. They’re half-sisters from about nine different mothers (our Prince got around, trying to get himself a son). Only two of the girls are actually full princesses; the rest are the daughters of noblewomen or farmers or millers. But the Prince ennobled all of them and brought them to the palace so he could marry them and ensure plenty of grandsons. The very kingdom treats this girls with disregard, so it works that we don’t know them all by name.

A reason for dancing? Yes. I like pulling the Hades and Persephone story into it, and I like the twist that combining that tale with Beauty and the Beast gives. Really, this blend was masterfully done. The three stories didn’t overpower one another, but they did serve to make the others stronger, which is what a combination like this really needs to be able to do.

An explanation of the underground world? Same as above. Yes, and yes, and I love it.

Round out the rest of the cast? Definitely. I love Reveka, and Marjit and Adina are wonderful. All of the additional characters here are well defined and enjoyable, and even the few that seem a bit shallow and underplayed will, I think, have more to do in the next book.

Overall, I really enjoyed this adaptation, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Merrie Haskell does as she continues this story!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Night Dance by Suzanne Weyn

First off, thanks and appreciate for your patience -- vacation threw my schedule off, and then the review itself gave me some trouble, but here it is, for your reading pleasure, so without further ado . . .

The Night Dance by Suzanne Weyn

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Rowena, the youngest of twelve sisters, loves to slip out of the castle at night and dance in a magical forest. Soon she convinces her sisters to join her. When Sir Ethan notices that his daughters’ slippers look tattered every morning, he is certain they’ve been sneaking out. So he posts a challenge to all the suitors in the kingdom: The first man to discover where his daughters have been is free to marry the one he chooses. Meanwhile, a handsome young knight named Bedivere is involved in a challenge of his own: to return the powerful sword, Excalibur, to a mysterious lake. While looking for the lake, Bedivere meets the beautiful Rowena and falls for her. Bedivere knows that accepting Sir Ethan’s challenge is the only opportunity for him to be with Rowena forever. But this puts both Bedivere and Rowena in a dangerous situation . . . one in which they risk their lives for a chance at love.                                                                                                            
Type of Adaptation: Combination retelling

First off, really the very first thing I need to say here is, really Once Upon a Time series? Again with the really very poor summary on the back of your book? Seriously. That’s two weeks in a row. That summary up there is highly inaccurate. But we’ll get to that.

Okay, starting the review for real, in The Night Dance, Suzanne Weyn offers us a type of adaptation that actually pops up in the Once Upon a Time series with a decent amount of frequency: we’ve been offered not one fairy tale here, but two. Weyn has taken the story of the twelve dancing princesses and combined it with the legend of King Arthur (if you hadn’t managed to pick that up from the mention of Excalibur above).

And it works. It’s not the best combination of two tales that I’ve read, but it serves its purpose, and it’s not horribly done. The stories combine in an interesting way, and they do enhance each other, and don’t inherently contribute to the weaknesses of this novel.
Because yes, this is not the strongest offering in the world. I mean, it’s okay, but it’s nothing stellar. This is Weyn’s first offering to this series, and it shows. The book’s not bad, but it’s nothing to write home about, either.

But let’s start at the beginning.

We begin with Rowena skulking about a courtyard, and I’m just going to copy out a portion of this first paragraph for you. It will help illustrate a point in just a moment: “Rowena pressed her slim body into the cool shadowy corner of the high wall in the empty courtyard. Shaded by the towering building behind her, her wavy copper-colored hair seemed to take on a more auburn hue. A determined glint deepened her lively, celery-color eyes into a stormy blue-green.”
. . . Okay. So, I know that the issue of how much physical descriptions of characters to provide is largely based on authorial preference. Personally, as an author, I like to provide as little physical
description as possible. If it’s relevant to the plot or to character development, then yeah, I’ll tell you someone’s height or the color of their eyes or whatever, but beyond that, I like to let my readers paint their own picture, and if it’s not the same as mine, whatever. But I also recognize that the choice to include detailed descriptions of characters is also a valid one.

This description, though . . . it’s just awkward. It’s awkwardly placed, it’s awkwardly worded, and when you tell me someone has celery-colored eyes, I have to stop for a moment and consciously decide what color that is, exactly. And this is the very first thing we read in this story. I read descriptions like this in a lot of bad fanfiction, is what I’m trying to say, and I really want to put it down to first-time-author-itis, but I can’t, because Weyn had been publishing books for twenty years before this one came out! Just, off the bat, this doesn’t bode well, you know?

Anyway, Rowena is skulking around this courtyard because she’s found a weak spot in one of the walls, and she’s been working slowly but surely on creating a hole so that she can slip away into the forest beyond. It’s revealed that she and her sisters have been basically kept captive behind this wall since their mother disappeared, but we aren’t told yet how long ago that was.

That’s the prologue, essentially, and then the story jumps backward, telling the tale of how Sir Ethan was lured into the woods on a hunt one day by a wild boar, who then changed into a beautiful woman, and Ethan fell in love. That beautiful woman was Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake, and she and Sir Ethan were married, and in six years, had twelve daughters.

(That’s Weyn’s thing with the princesses, by the way. My theory is that everyone who tackles this story has a thing with the princesses, and Weyn’s thing is making them six sets of twins, though I do have to give her kudos for being one of the few authors I’ve seen whose thing has nothing to do with the names.)

Sir Ethan loved his wife and daughters, and they all live together in a small cottage in the woods, which seems impractical, but hey. Whatever. The only thing that mars their happiness is that occasionally, Vivienne will disappear. She tells her husband only that she has magical business she has to take care of, but that she will always return.

Except that one day, she doesn’t. One day, she leaves and never comes back. Sir Ethan is despondent, and he takes his money and builds the small cottage into something unrecognizable – a huge, sprawling mansion, and he surrounds it with a high wall, and his daughters are never to be let out into the world. He will not lose them, he vows, the way he lost their mother.

In the next chapter, we abruptly switch perspectives to that of Vivienne, so that we can learn what happened to her, and it’s what we might expect if we know the King Arthur legend. Morgan le Fey trapped Vivienne beneath her enchanted lake, and buried that lake far under the ground. Now, many years have passed, and Vivienne has put all her faith in one of her daughters finding the scrying bowl she hid in the woods, so that she can tell them what has happened.

Except that, as stated, her daughters have been locked behind the walls. But luckily, the one daughter who is headstrong and stifled enough to find a way out of the imprisonment also happens to be the one who received her mother’s magical gift of The Sight! See, Rowena has succeeded in making a hole in the wall through which she can escape periodically (though how she succeeded in hiding a hole big enough for a person to crawl through is never clearly explained), and once she gets into the forest, free from confines, her Sight is fully awakened for the first time.

Dozing one day, she slips into a trance where she sees the image of a knight in battle, a knight who sees a fallen body and screams with anguish and torment. Unbeknownst to her, she has just seen the fall of King Arthur through the eyes of Bedivere, a knight of the Round Table.

Abrupt perspective shift to Bedivere! Bedivere sits on the field of battle, cradling his dying king, and is given the task of returning Arthur’s magical sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Weyn stays pretty true to the legends of this character – he is one handed, he is given this charge by King Arthur, he has his doubts about throwing such a valuable sword into a lake somewhere. It’s just the end of his story that she changes, but we’ll get to that.

Anyway, back to Rowena’s story, she has continued to escape to the forest day after day, and her sisters are getting suspicious. Well, one sister is. The eldest, Eleanore. We don’t really hear about the others. But Eleanore catches Rowena in her lies one day, the day that Rowena has found her mother’s scrying bowl. Not that we see that scene. Because we don’t.

Looking in the bowl, Rowena sees a woman trapped in a lake, a woman who points to a specific place in the girls’ room. When they follow her instructions, they find a trapdoor that leads down into a mysterious series of tunnels.

Abrupt perspective shift to Morgan le Fey! Morgan has figured out that Vivienne is trying to get Excalibur back, and Morgan wants the sword for herself. So she has disguised herself as a household servant to spy on the girls, I think to ensure that she can interfere if Vivienne tries to contact them, but that’s a guess because her reasoning is never spelled out. She follows the girls their first time down into the tunnels and watches them get lost.

Abrupt perspective shift to Bedivere! For some reason, Bedivere has abandoned his armor and tabard, and rather than choosing to go back to Camelot or his home or someplace where he can wander around not looking like a beggar, he instead chooses to do just that – wander around looking like a beggar. Who happens to be carrying two swords. One of which is the most powerful magical sword of all time. It’s okay, though. This raises no suspicions. He meets two beggar children, who show him a place to sleep and offer to help him get food.

Abrupt perspective shift to Eleanore! She and her sisters are still trapped in the passages, but luckily they catch a mouse, and Eleanore has the idea of tying an earring on a ribbon to the mouse’s tail, and the mouse can lead them back to their rooms, because that’s absolutely where the mouse will go! Luckily for the girls, it actually does, and they return to their room, but their fragile slippers have been ruined.

Abrupt perspective shift to Sir Ethan! Seriously. Every chapter is a new perspective, and it is incredibly jarring. I’ve already talked about my love/hate relationship with multiple perspectives, and this novel is firmly on the “hate” side of things. It’s not as bad as some I’ve read, but it’s also not done well at all. Anyway, Sir Ethan discovers the ruined slippers, as well as his exhausted daughters all collapsed on one bed, and he knows something is up. He orders that their shoes be lined up each morning for inspection, and he changes the locks everywhere, fitting a new lock on the outside of the girls’ room. Because talking to them about what happened appears to be out of the question.

Next chapter, Rowena, who has somehow missed her father’s anger, and so sneaks out into the forest again. She has another vision, seeing the same knight again, only now, he looks much different.

Next chapter, Bedivere, still looking for the Lady of the Lake. A group of monks has heard legends, and they tell him of a cottage in the woods. Bedivere sets out, but then finds himself lifted out of his body and looking at a young lady asleep in the woods. She is so beautiful, he is almost overwhelmed with the desire to kiss her. Then, suddenly, he’s back in his own body, and there’s a creature made of rocks trying to attack him! Using Excalibur, he defeats the creature, then looks for the sorcerer responsible, but instead, finds Rowena, the beautiful maiden from his dreams!

Next chapter Rowena, and her perspective on meeting Bedivere. They talk of what just happened, and that, for some reasons, they’ve been swapping bodies a little bit. Bedivere tells her of his quest for the Lady of the Lake, and then Sir Ethan returns, and Rowena must return home, but before she can go, Bedivere kisses her passionately, and they are entirely in love.

Now, I’m not a fan of love at first sight in the best of times, but the way that it’s handled here really turns me off. Because it’s not that they fall in love after this meeting – they’re already in love, from the two times that they have, for a matter of seconds, swapped bodies. That’s just . . . weird to me, and off-putting.

Anyway, Sir Ethan catches Rowena returning from the forest, and as punishment, he enforces even stricter rules on his daughters, who are naturally rebelling against the unfairness of all this. The only avenue of escape left to them is the secret passage under their bedroom, so they make plans to explore that more thoroughly, all except Rowena, who is too lovelorn to really do much of anything except pine.

The girls return to the passages with light this time, and they find an underground lake. Little do they know that it’s the magical lake of their mother, and also her prison. But because none of the girls are gifted with the Sight, they can’t see their mother. Rowena would be able to, but she’s too busy pining over Bedivere. Morgan realizes how close the girls are to freeing their mother, and so she calls up the Avalon Isle and twelve stag-princes and gives the girls an enchanted party to go to every night, so enticing to them that they forget the reason they went into the passages in the first place – Rowena was convinced their mother was in trouble somewhere.

And this is really where the story starts to come off the rails for me because this is the part where the motivations for everyone’s actions either disappears or becomes nonsensical. Sir Ethan is really the one person whose actions I can get behind – he’s terrified of losing his daughters, he knows they’re disobeying him, so he tightens his hold on them, imposing guards and locks and then these men to solve their mystery. Everything he does is driven by that fear and need to control some aspect of this situation.

But Rowena? She doesn’t care about the secret passages because she’s lovesick over Bedivere, and she’s not as enamored with the magical isle and her prince there for the same reason. But, at the same time, she still goes. She’s frustrated with her sisters because they seem to have forgotten the search for their mother. But at the same time, she doesn’t exactly go off and do much searching, either.

And the sisters! I have no idea what’s going on with them half the time. First they want to explore because of the freedom, but then it’s also because of their mother, and then there’s the enchanted island, and it just felt half the time like Weyn couldn’t decide if they were going every night for the adventure or because they were under Morgan’s spell, so she just left it deliberately vague. But the problem with leaving that issue deliberately vague is that it turns these girls into absolutely horrible people who, even after poisoning a man almost to death, can’t understand why Rowena wants to stop.

They’re just so ungrounded, all of them, and it doesn’t help that none of the sisters beyond Eleanore and Rowena are given any sort of defining personality at all. And Eleanore’s is so confused I don’t know what to think of her half the time. She’s the one who wants romance and adventure, but she scolds Rowena for seeking them out. She’s the one who fears that their mother is in danger, but then she completely forgets about her. She flirts shamelessly with the first young man come to solve their mystery, then almost kills him with a sleeping potion, then shows no remorse for that whatsoever when it becomes clear he’ll recover, and then later, she marries him. To say nothing of the fact that she is the one driving the others to keep secrets and lie, and she’s the one telling their father that marrying them off as prizes is morally wrong, while at the same time having no qualms whatsoever about using for a second time a poison that almost killed a man! I feel like I’m supposed to believe that it’s Morgan’s enchantment driving Eleanore’s decisions, but I’m sorry, she wasn’t characterized well enough in the beginning for me to differentiate from pre to post enchantment. She just comes off as an unfeeling, selfish, and dangerous bitch rather than anyone I sympathize with in the slightest.

And then there’s Bedivere. You know, the guy who is supposed to be returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake? Well, he hears about Sir Ethan’s contest and signs up because he thinks it’s the only way to win Rowena, which personally doesn’t sound like the kind of motivation in keeping with a Knight of the Round Table. I mean, okay, yes, there is a little bit of Rowena sharing her suspicion that her mother was the Lady of the Lake, and so maybe Bedivere can find her if he goes on this quest, but I never got the impression that that was foremost in his mind when he signed up.

He also just happens to be handed the second-place spot in the contest (literally, guys. A man who “can’t afford to wait this long” just gives him a card with the number 2 on it. Seriously? You were so taken with the idea that you came all the way to sign up, but because you’re second instead of first and so have to wait three days, that’s not worth it anymore, so you might as well go home? WTF, man?)

Anyway, to give you a sense of what happens in this jumble, Sir Ethan posts the challenge and the prize – solve the mystery, win a daughter – and any number of young men appear for it. They all draw cards to determine their order, only Bedivere isn’t allowed to draw because he’s ill. Also, Morgan le Fey keeps showing up to tempt him both away from the mystery and out of Excalibur, but Bedivere remains steadfast.

While all this is going on, the girls are panicked over being handed over in marriage and losing their magical isle, so Eleanore asks her stag-prince for a potion to keep the men asleep. Only they use it on man #1, and he falls into a sleep so deep he’s comatose and barely breathing. But that won’t stop them from using it again.

Man number 2, then, is Bedivere. And that bothers me, too, because the man who succeeds is supposed to come after this long string of failed attempts. The pacing of this part of the story is so rushed because everything – from Rowena’s escapes to finding the trapdoor to going to the dance to holding the contest to being rescued – happens literally over the course of about two weeks, and I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it!

Anyway, Rowena is determined to let Bedivere rescue them (so she can get her love), so she brings the drink in and warns him not to drink it. And another inconsistent characterization – her sisters don’t trust her because she’s been so vocal about stopping, and yet they still let her take in the wine? Also, if Rowena so badly wants to end this, why doesn’t she just go and tell her father the truth?

But Bedivere doesn’t drink, and he follows them, and when he takes Excalibur down to the lake, its very presence is enough to weaken the bonds on Vivienne, and she calls the sword back to her. So Bedivere doesn’t throw it in so much as have it sucked away from him. Now free, Vivienne and Bedivere go to rescue the girls from their enchanted isle, fighting against Morgan le Fey as they do so.

Somehow, Bedivere and Rowena get separated from the others, and end up in a grove of bronze trees, which change to silver and then to gold (because Weyn realized she hadn’t put them in the story yet??), and something happens and Bedivere grieves for the first time, and sharing grief and then happiness somehow heals his injured hand, and I don’t know, man. It was weird and out of place and incredibly convenient.

And then the girls are reunited with their mother, and Sir Ethan is reunited with Vivienne, and he tells her that he always knew she’d come back to him, which is complete and utter bullshit, but whatever. And the gates come down, and Rowena marries Bedivere and Eleanore marries the random nobleman she almost killed, and Morgan le Fey is defeated by being knocked unconscious, and I don’t even care anymore.

When I started this review, I was going to end it by arguing that the book isn’t that bad, but in writing this review, I’ve just gotten more and more frustrated with this story, to the point where I just want to throw my hands in the air and say “Screw it. Whatever.” I’ve just lost patience with it all. But, I must forcefully remind myself, I wasn’t this frustrated actually reading it, so fine, okay, strictly speaking, the book isn’t terrible, but it also isn’t any better than mediocre. The motivation and character development were just weak, the constant perspective shifts were jarring and lazy, and there was just too much that was just a little too convenient.

On top of that, I kept being pulled out of the narrative by logistics questions: If everyone thought Bedivere was a beggar, why did no one blink an eye at the fact that he was carrying two swords, one of which was covered in jewels? Why did the fall of King Arthur seem to have absolutely no effect on any of the rest of the story? Why didn’t anyone recognize Excalibur? Why wasn’t Bedivere’s first move after the battle to return to Camelot or his home and get something that would identify him as a Knight of the Round Table? For that matter, why didn’t he ever try to tell anyone that he was Bedivere of the Round Table?

The fact that these questions were never addressed didn’t bring the plot to a screeching halt or anything, but it did continually pull me out of the story because I was always aware that there was probably an easier way that the characters could have done things, and I was never given a satisfactory reason as to why everything was being made so difficult. All in all, this really did read like an author’s first novel, one that wasn’t edited very well. And if that were the case, I could be forgiving. But knowing that Weyn had twenty years of publication behind her when she wrote this makes it just inexcusable.

Anyway. Checklist.

Firm characterizations of the sisters? Oh my good Lord, FAIL. Seriously. I know Rowena, I know Eleanore, but I couldn’t even name the other ten, let alone tell you anything about their personalities. Oldest/youngest bias, just like the original, and even those two aren’t characterized in a way that I can get behind. Eleanore is incredibly inconsistent and unmotivated, and Rowena just got annoying. I’m sorry, but fail. Entirely.

A reason for the dancing? Eh . . . kinda? I mean, yeah, it’s there. Discovering the passage is born out of tracking their mother (sorta) and wanting an adventure, and then the actual dancing is part of the enchantment by Morgan le Fey. So, yes, there’s a reason, I just don’t know that it’s a terribly good one. But I’ll offer a pity point.

An explanation of the underground world? Yes, and I will give the novel this praise: combining this fairy tale with the Arthur legend actually worked pretty well. There are a lot of crossover elements, and Weyn did succeed in tying the two stories together in a coherent and intriguing way. I will give the novel that much.

Round out the rest of the cast? Not really. I mean, I like what was done with Vivienne and Sir Ethan and Morgan le Fey, but everyone else just felt like filler, like if they weren’t going to be around for longer than a chapter, they didn’t need to be given characterization or anything. So, half a point?

Yeah, not the strongest showing for this novel. It wasn’t awful, but I’m really hoping the month improves.