Friday, August 31, 2012

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.

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