Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

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Since “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is my favorite fairy tale, it’s fitting that I kick off Fairy Tale Friday with a retelling of it!  I originally read Princess of the Midnight Ball when I was in high school, and it was actually the first retelling of the tale I ever read.  I’m fond of it, so rereading it is always a pleasure!

I’m breaking this post into three parts: the book as a retelling, my thoughts on the book as a whole, and related reading suggestions.  This is a new feature, so I’m naturally still experimenting with the format I want.  I might end up changing it for later posts.

My Rating: 4 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

Princess of the Midnight Ball is a fairly straight retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”  George mostly draws on the German version of the story collected by the Brothers Grimm, which is generally the one people are familiar with.  She includes all the key elements: twelve princesses who wear out their shoes each night, a soldier with an invisibility cloak, many princes trying and failing to solve the mystery, a garden of silver trees, an underground lake and palace where the princesses dance each night, and a marriage at the end between the soldier and the eldest princess.

George does bring in some aspects from other variants of the tale.  The hero of the French and Romanian versions of the tale is a gardener instead of a soldier.  Galen in Princess of the Midnight Ball is both a soldier and a gardener.  After returning to Westfalin from the war in Analousia, Galen’s uncle gives him a job in the royal gardens.  The princesses also become dangerously ill but are still forced to continue dancing each night, which occurs in the similar Scottish tale “Kate Crackernuts” though with a prince instead of princesses.

In some respects, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” lends itself to retelling.  It provides authors with plenty of chances to be creative, especially in regards to the villain of the story.  The original story doesn’t actually have a villain, unless you count the princesses, who seem rather blasé about the trouble they’ve caused.  Some variants mention a curse, but it is very vague and we never learn who cursed them or why.  The German version of the story also does not include an explanation for the underground realm the princesses dance in.  Some do provide one, but they vary depending on the tale’s location; in the Scottish tale it is a fairy dance under a hill, in one Russian version it is the Accursed Tsar’s realm, and in the Hungarian variant it is Hell.

The lack of villain and vagueness about the underground realm allows authors to create characters and explanations that will suit the story they want to tell.  George creates the King Under Stone as her villain, a formerly human sorcerer who was trapped underground by twelve good magicians.  There is a whole backstory on how Under Stone forced the girls into dancing for him.  Their mother made a deal with him in order to have children and for Westfalin to win the war.  When she died, the terms of the bargain transferred to her daughters, which was Under Stone’s plan all along.  This backstory also provides explanations for other elements of the original story, such as a silver grove the princesses walk through.

The idea of the princesses being under a curse comes from original versions of the tale, such as the Romanian and French variants, though George greatly expands on it.  In the German version, there is no curse.  The princesses go dancing at night and refuse to reveal their secret because they want to.  They are completely happy with the arrangement despite the anguish they’re causing their father and the resulting deaths of everyone who tries to solve the mystery. Overall, they aren’t the most likable characters in the tale, and they would be even less likable in something as long as the novel.  By using the curse aspect, George ensures readers will sympathize with and root for her princesses.

George also gets creative with the fate of the unsuccessful suitors.  In the version I was given as a child, the punishment for failing to solve the mystery of the slippers is banishment from the kingdom.  In some variants of the story, the suitors are enchanted and go to dance in the underground realm as well.  In these versions, they marry the remaining princesses at the end.  However, in the German version, the punishment for failing the task is death.  This also does not make for sympathetic princesses or a sympathetic king, but George does not shy away from killing off the failed suitors.  Instead, she wraps this into the King Under Stone’s plot.  The suitors, who are princes from other countries, die only after leaving Westfalin in what appear to be terrible accidents, though it is actually Under Stone orchestrating each one.  Despite the seemingly accidental nature of the deaths, the royal family faces consequences from them, unlike the in the original tale.  The already tense foreign relationships become further strained, and the princesses are eventually accused of witchcraft.

My Thoughts:

As I mentioned, I’m very fond of this book, and I think it’s a great retelling.  George does a great job building off the elements from the original fairy tale.  I really like that she shows the consequences of the whole ordeal, both on the personal scale and the larger, political scale.  The princesses grieve over the dead princes even though they didn’t like most of them, and being forced to dance every night traumatizes them.  One of the youngest princesses can’t even hear the world “ball” without bursting into tears.  The deaths of the princes and the accusation of witchcraft raises the stakes higher and further increases the tension of the story.  A bishop from the Church comes to investigate the girls, their governess is arrested, and the people of the city begin a riot.

I think the two main characters, Galen and Princess Rose, are very likable. Galen is a genuinely good person; he just wants to help the princesses and has no ulterior motive.  He comes forward to solve the mystery without the expectation of the reward even though he’s completely in love with Rose at this point.  As much as I love bad boys and anti-heroes, it’s wonderful to see a male protagonist who is just actually nice.  Plus he knits, and that’s just adorable!  Rose is not just a damsel waiting to be rescued; she’s the leader among her sisters and tries to be strong for them.  She even comes up with the plan to try to get them out of the King Under Stone’s realm.  But despite her strength, we do see the cracks in her armor.  Sometimes she feels hopeless and sometimes she snaps at her sisters because she’s overwhelmed.  She’s a wonderful balance of strength and vulnerability, and it makes her feel real.

I have two main problems that keep this from being a five star read.  The first is the lack of development in the other princesses.  It’s a common problem in retellings of this story; I also noticed in in Entwined and The Thirteenth Princess.  Fleshing out each of the princesses plus the other characters in addition to telling an intriguing and fast-paced story is just difficult. I’ve found that the best way to get around it is to trim down the number of princesses, as Juliet Marillier does in Wildwood Dancing.  Most of the princesses other than Rose only have one defining quality, and some of them don’t even have that.  I can’t tell most of the middle princesses apart or even remember their names and places in the birth order.  While I understand why this happened, I would have liked to see them developed more.

My second problem is that certain aspects of the plot and subplots feel rushed.  The best example I can give is the romance between Lily, the second eldest princess, and Heinrich, Galen’s cousin.  While it is hinted at and even briefly mentioned a few times throughout the book, very little time is spent on it.  Heinrich is presumed dead until the final chapter, and we don’t really see Lily’s feelings about it.  We don’t know either of them well, so when Heinrich shows up at the end and they get together, it feels rushed.  While it’s not a major part of the story, I wish there had been more development of both their characters and their relationship.

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  To keep the list from getting too long, I’m limiting it to four that I’ve read and four that I haven’t.

Other Retellings of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”:

More Retellings by Jessica Day George:

About the Fairy Tale:

This review is also posted on aliteraryprincess.tumblr.com

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