I’ve always had a soft spot for fairy-tale retellings; hence my love for The Lunar Chronicles, Beauty, so on and so forth. It’s fun to see how authors re-imagine the words of ages-old writers, or how they toy with the constraints set in place by The Brothers Grimm and other storytellers. Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier follows the time-old story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, except there are only five of them (which is probably for the best; imagine having to remember twelve characters) and they’re merchant’s daughters, not royalty.
The girls live in Transylvania, in a mysterious castle that is already fraught with superstitions and strange lore. Romanian culture was heavily laced into the story, from the food to the names to the words, but I’m not sure that the author quite accomplished what she was going for. When I read the book, it felt like I was being told over and over again that they were Romanian, when I should have understood this from context. The “Romanian-ness” was blatant, but it should have been subtle; you know how in grade school, English teachers would always tell you to “show, not tell”?
So the girls live in this castle with a few servants and their father. Tati is the oldest, and an ethereal beauty; Jena comes after her, and she’s the protagonist of the story, who is known for being sensible; then it’s Iulia, I think, the flirty one, then Paula, the scholar, and finally Stela, at five years. Oh yeah, their ages range from 16 to 12, I think, with Stela as an outlier. That made it a little frustrating at certain parts (like when Tati insists that she’s in love with a man that she’s known for a week), but since this is set in what, the late 1800s – early 1900s, I tried to suspend my disbelief. The merchant father is working with a cousin of his (the girls’s uncle) on a business venture, and that cousin has a son named Cezar.
Recently I’ve stopped writing up synopses for the books that I read because honestly, it’s such a boring task. I’m way too meticulous when I try to recall the events, and it gets really miserable. So I’m just going to cover the highs and lows of the book in depth, as I usually do. If you want to know what happens: there are five girls — they go dancing in the Otherworld on full-moon nights — their father, the merchant, is very sick and has to go away for a while, leaving them in their uncle’s care — their uncle is killed, leaving the girls in Cezar’s hands, and he’s kind of a tyrant — Cezar is a misogynistic pig who knows the girls are somehow sneaking out — Jena’s pet frog, Gogu, turns out to be a man — Tati and her vampiric lover, Sorrow, manage to end up together; Costi, who is Cezar’s supposedly-dead older brother, turns out to be the real identity of Gogu, and he was under a supernatural curse doled out to him by Draguta, the forest witch. He marries Jena and their father comes home, hearty again, and everything is fine and dandy.
See, I’m not good at explanations.
Cezar was a good antagonist. There were times when I wanted to put down the book and cry because he was frustrating me. There are so many sexist stereotypes ingrained into him, and he demonstrates just how useless he thinks women are several times. Cezar looks for a damsel in distress, in Jena, and grows angry when he isn’t able to find one– which makes him dangerous. Jena maintains diplomacy with her childhood friend, failing to shut him down when needed, which I found annoying; but nearer to the middle of the book, when Cezar’s advances became more aggressive, I realized that it was probably because she didn’t want him to go ballistic on her. He’s huge, strong, and intimidating– definitely not the type you’d want for an enemy, especially if you’re a fifteen-year-old girl.
I liked the camaraderie between the younger sisters, though I’m excluding Tatiana from this because for most of the story, she was the lovelorn maiden mooning into the night sky, wallowing in self-pity because she can’t be with her week-old lover. I didn’t like her at all. But I get that she had to be included in the story, because she’s one of those quintessential fairy-tale characters.
Jena maintains that she is the “sensible” sister throughout the story, and her practicality shines in every one of her decisions. She refuses to allow Cezar to feel like he is in control. She warns Tati away from Sorrow, a member of the Night People, who are notoriously dangerous. She chooses not to trust Gogu after he turns into a man– understandable, because her frog just turned into a man. Her reasoning behind this, though, irritated me a little: the vampiress Anastasia drags her to “Draguta’s Mirror,” which is a pool of water that will apparently show you your future. Jena sees Man-Gogu (Costi) attacking her sisters. Firstly, I don’t understand why the heck Jena believes the mirror that this woman introduces her to. Anastasia has been suspicious since her initial appearance in the Otherworld; the Night People, whom Anastasia belongs to, are known for playing cruel tricks on people, and Jena even claims several times that the Night People are attacking the villagers in an attempt to turn the villagers against the woodland fey. So why, Jena, would you suddenly believe that Anastasia is being truthful when she claims to have something like “Draguta’s Mirror”? And secondly, why would you believe anything that Draguta’s Mirror shows you? It was introduced to you by a vampire, specifically one who has some kind of grudge against you, and being the sensible sister, shouldn’t she have some sliver of doubt about everything she observes? This was one point where I felt that Jena lost her practicality for the sake of the plot. Even when she was explaining to her sisters about why she believed Anastasia, she was faltering and it was out-of-character.
The Otherlands were interesting, and I’d love to see more of their world. The Queen, Ileana, Draguta the Witch, and all of the other quirky characters were fleshed out just enough so that we cared about them. Ms. Marillier could have skimmed over this cast without paying too much attention to them, but I’m glad that she delved into the fairy creatures and the weird residents of the woodlands because it helped the reader understand why the sisters are so disillusioned with the human world, and why they want so much to keep the Otherlands thriving despite Cezar’s threat to tear them down. I also like how aloof the woodland creatures are to everything going on in the mortal realm; they don’t care that Cezar has a vendetta against them. They’re very laissez-faire about the whole situation, which would seem to be the appropriate response for magical beings.
One thing I noticed is that this book is long. That’s not good. When you’re reading something lengthy, you should never notice that it’s lengthy, because that means you’re not enjoying it… that’s what I think, anyways. Because if you’re totally engrossed, you won’t even notice.
Also: the ending left me with a lot of questions. It wrapped up in a very anti-climactic manner. Cezar, who is the bane of their existence? He realizes he’s messed up his own life and walks into the forest. What happens to him? That isn’t revealed. I hoped he had joined the Night People and would throw a curveball at them, and I was waiting for this, but nope. He just… vanishes. Then also, what happens to the Night People? I felt like she was building up this huge secondary, or maybe primary antagonist, but they just vanish at the end of the story. Ileana banishes them or something, even though they had this whole plan to take over the Otherworld… that plot was left as loose threads.
The story moves slowly, but that’s because Ms. Marillier fleshes out her world very meticulously. Overall, I believe that it’s sub-par as a fairytale retelling because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table in regards to The Twelve Dancing Princesses, not really. The re-read value is low, too. But if you like fairy-tales and you’re interested in Romanian culture, maybe check it out. I’m thinking about continuing the series anyways because the next book features Paula, who is honestly, in my opinion, the best of the sisters. She actually seems to have a good head on her shoulders and is very down-to-earth. But we’ll see. My bookstacks grow taller every day and I don’t have enough time to get through them all, haha.