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.