Title: Princess of the Midnight Ball
Author: Jessica Day George
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: January 2009
Hardcover: 288 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel, based on The Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale.
Why did I read this book: Pimptastic honorary smuggler Karen Mahoney strikes AGAIN! I had heard about this book on her blog, and was taken in by the pretty cover and the retelling of a slightly lesser known fairy tale.
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
A tale of twelve princesses doomed to dance until dawn… Galen is a young soldier returning from war; Rose is one of twelve princesses condemned to dance each night for the King Under Stone. Together Galen and Rose will search for a way to break the curse that forces the princesses to dance at the midnight balls. All they need is one invisibility cloak, a black wool chain knit with enchanted silver needles, and that most critical ingredient of all—true love—to conquer their foes in the dark halls below. But malevolent forces are working against them above ground as well, and as cruel as the King Under Stone has seemed, his wrath is mere irritation compared to the evil that awaits Galen and Rose in the brighter world above.
Captivating from start to finish, Jessica Day George’s take on the Grimms’ tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses demonstrates yet again her mastery at spinning something entirely fresh out of a story you thought you knew.
Born of an ill-advised deal struck by their mother, the twelve princesses of Westfalin mysteriously manage to wear out their delicate dancing slippers night after night even though they are under lock and key. Unbeknownst to their father the king, the princesses’ mother agreed to a deal with an ancient evil imprisoned in an underground realm. In exchange for the birth of her daughters and peace and victory for Westfalin, The dread King Under Stone orders that the Queen dance for him every night at the Midnight Ball in his dark realm — and when she dies, the curse passes to her twelve daughters, whom Under Stone plans to marry to his twelve sons. Night after night of dancing, the princesses are sick and completely drained of energy and their frantic father offers a desperate contest to any prince of the realm: within three nights discover the secret of the princesses’ dancing shoes, and be granted marriage to one of his daughters. Prince after prince attempts to discover the girls’ secret, to no avail. Even worse, each prince that takes on the challenge soon finds himself dead of tragic “accidents.” The princesses are powerless to even speak of their curse, and the situation has never seemed more dire as the neighboring kingdoms begin to suspect the Westfalin King of treachery.
That is, until a youth of poor birth but noble heart decides to give it a try.
Young Galen is a soldier, having fought for Westfalin since his birth. After the war, he travels to the kingdom to find his aunt and seek work in return for food and shelter. His uncle works in the royal gardens, and soon Galen does too, pruning and planting the flowers the late Queen loved so dearly — and he meets and is instantly struck by Rose, the eldest of the twelve princesses. Aided by a magical cloak, Galen follows the girls into Under Stone’s realm, and not only discovers the secret of the dancing shoes, but desperately endeavors to save the princesses and break the curse of Under Stone for good.
Princess of the Midnight Ball is an incredibly loyal retelling of the original fairy tale, deviating only to enhance characters and create a compelling backstory. I happen to be a sucker for retellings, especially ones that take big chances and deviate significantly from the original tale (Elizabeth C. Bunce’s stellar debut novel, A Curse Dark As Gold comes to mind). In the case of Princess of the Midnight Ball however, little deviation is necessary; instead the book elaborates on the simple fairy tale, painting a swath of political instability, and creating characters that make bad decisions born of good intentions. And it works completely to the book’s charm. The only major — and much more palatable — changes to the original fairy tale is that the princesses go to the ball against their will (via the curse), and the soldier who uncovers the princesses’ secret is a young war-weary soldier, as opposed to an older veteran.
In terms of plotting, this is a simple fairy tale — a brave, worthy young man falls in love with a princess and helps break the curse on her by virtue of knowledge and magical items he has gained through his good and noble deeds. The characters are similarly simplistic; Galen is unfalteringly brave and heroic, Rose is a loving, protective older sister, the King is goodhearted and worried for his daughters, and Under Stone is diabolically evil. Though I will say there are some nice touches that add spice to these characters — I loved Galen’s handiness with knitting (as a soldier, he needed to be able to mend his own socks), and the larger role knitting played overall in the story. Still, the most interesting characters in my opinion were the unfortunate Queen (whom we meet only at the beginning of the book as she strikes her bargain with Under Stone, and then throughout the book in journals), the sons of Under Stone (who do what their father bids them, though there is some tension and fear there), and the elder magicians from the first battle with Under Stone. These less straightforward characters lent some much needed variety to an otherwise rudimentary cast.
At its heart, Princess of the Midnight Ball is truly a novel for Young Adults. It’s an enchanting, if straightforward, tale about good and love triumphing over evil, curses bought and broken, and happy ever-afters. Which isn’t a bad thing — sometimes you want to read the happy stuff. This is a book I would definitely recommend to younger readers (for example, I would have no qualms giving this book to my 10 year-old sister), though older more seasoned readers looking for something grittier might be disappointed.
Notable Quotes/Parts: I loved the depictions of Under Stone’s realm; especially the beautiful, haunting descriptions of the Midnight Ball.
Additional Thoughts: For those who may not be familiar with the Twelve Danng Princesses myth here’s the rundown (courtesy of wikipedia):
Twelve princesses slept in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors were securely locked, but in the morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night.
The king, perplexed, promised his kingdom and a daughter to any man who could discover the princesses’ secret within three days and three nights, but those who failed within the set time limit would be put to death.
An old soldier returned from war came to the king’s call after several princes had failed in the endeavour to discover the princesses’ secret. Whilst traveling through a wood he came upon an old woman, who gave him an invisibility cloak and told him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who would come to him in the evening, and to pretend to be fast asleep after the princess left.
The soldier was well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess came to his chamber and offered him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman’s advice, threw it away secretly and began to snore very loudly as if asleep.
The princesses, sure that the soldier was asleep, dressed themselves in fine clothes and escaped from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, donned his invisibility cloak and followed them down. He trod on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry to her sisters that all was not right was rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway led them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, broke off a twig as evidence. They walked on until they came upon a great lake. Twelve boats with twelve princes in them were waiting. Each princess went into one, and the soldier stepped into the same boat as the youngest. The young prince in the boat rowed slowly, unaware that the soldier was causing the boat to be heavy. The youngest princess complained that the prince was not rowing fast enough, not knowing the soldier was in the boat. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away.
The princesses danced until their shoes were worn through and they were obliged to leave. This strange adventure went on the second and third nights, and everything happened just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carried away a golden cup as a token of where he had been. When it came time for him to declare the princesses’ secret, he went before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and told the king all he had seen. The princesses saw there was no use to deny the truth, and confessed. The soldier chose the eldest princess as his bride for he was not a very young man, and was made the king’s heir.
Verdict: A solid, lighthearted read. I enjoyed this novel, even though I was looking for more substantive fare. Definitely recommended for anyone that wants a quick, happy read — and especially recommended for the target audience young adults!
Rating: 7 Very Good
Reading Next: Feast of Souls by C.S. Friedman