I’m on a fairy tale kick lately, so I’m very happy that Isa chose this book for me to read. It’s a very interesting and original retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a story about a group of princesses who are forced to dance to the point of exhaustion every night. My first impression wasn’t very positive: to be honest I found that the first 40% of the book were rather slow-going and not very interesting, because nothing much happened aside from a lot of worldbuilding and introductions of characters. One of the problems is that I was already familiar with the story. So while everyone in the castle is wondering why the princesses’s slippers have holes in them every morning, I’m like “well that’s because every night they go down the secret tunnel and dance underground, duh”.
The book’s own backcover mentions the dancing and the underground, so it’s not even as if that’s meant to be a big spoiler. I felt that the first several chapters followed the fairytale too closely, and maybe it would have been more interested if the book had started with Reveka’s first attempts to discover a cure for the curse instead of starting so far back.
…Oh, right, Reveka. The original fairytale has some boring, nameless hero who tries to break the curse so he can marry one of the princesses. The book has Reveka instead. Reveka is thirteen and she’s apprenticed to the castle’s herbalist. She wants to break the curse and get the reward money so she can join a convent, because being a nun in the 15th century means you don’t have to marry some dolt and instead you can spend your life working in your herbarium and figuring out how plants work. That last bit doesn’t sound very interesting to me, but Reveka is super into plants so good for her.
I like Reveka, though at times I forget that she’s just thirteen because she acts and speaks as if she’s much older. That may be because back in the day people started working younger and got married younger and so on (and Reveka does point out a couple of times that she is old enough to be married) but she was just a little too mature to be believable as a kid. Still, she’s a funny protagonist.
“I understand that you don’t want to marry me,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know why, since I’m simply delightful to be around. But to each his own taste.”
One of my favourite things about Reveka is that she wasn’t suddenly all-knowledgeable about plants as the plot required it. Most of the time she didn’t know what to do and had to look things up in her book, or she had to ask the herbalist or other adults. Reveka is not a child prodigy, she’s a regular apprentice who sometimes gets things wrong because she’s still learning, and that made her sympathetic to me. I also liked how herbs and plants played such a central role and the herbalist was sort of a cross between a doctor and a scientist.
The setting is also very interesting: the country of Sylvania where Reveka lives is fictional, but very realistic and based on neighbouring Transylvania and Wallachia. I believe that many details, like the threat of a Turkish invasion and the style of dress and the ruling system, are actual historical detains. It’s very different from the generic fantasy setting that I imagined from the cover, and I was intrigued.
Don’t get me wrong, the cover is very pretty, but Reveka wears a simple chemise and her hair is pushed back under a cowl so who is this stranger with the fancy dress and flowing hair?
Anyway. Halfway through the book Reveka finally figures out an important thing about the curse, and that’s when the book becomes, in a word, awesome. Up to then I was rather underwhelmed by the plot, but then the author started mixing in bits of other fairytales and myths. That made it much more interesting for me, because I no longer knew what was going to happen and the story felt completely original. I’m trying very hard not to spoil anything, because part of the fun was not knowing about each plot point in advance, but there’s a bit where I thought that the story was going to feature one of two YA tropes, and I was trying to figure out which trope I would despise less. But then the story subverted both tropes… by having Reveka act like a person with a brain who makes her own decisions about her life. And also by not making a thirteen-year-old fall in instalove with anyone, because the book outright acknowledges that it would be problematic and that we’re not going there.
The ending felt somewhat rushed… I didn’t even realize that we had reached the climax of the story, I thought that we were just leading up to it and then suddenly it was over and we had a happy end. So that felt like a letdown. But I adored how the epilogue let things open: it’s a bit like Chalice in that regard, that it lets me free to imagine what will happen next to the protagonist and everyone else in the castle. Like Chalice, I wish that there was a sequel but at the same time I’m glad this is a standalone, because I feel it’s better to finish a book wanting a little more rather than slogging through a trilogy and wondering why it’s dragging on for so long. And in this case I definitely want to read more from Merrie Haskell!