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.

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