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.