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!