Friday June 8, 2012
Dancing the night away
Review by TAN SHIOW CHIN
Here’s a fairytale for young adults that offers relatable characters in an interesting setting, with just the right touch of romance.
Author: Heather Dixon
Publisher: Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins, 472 pages
AZALEA is the eldest of 12 princesses — all named alphabetically after plants, who all love to dance. But none more so than the Princess Royale, who, in the opening chapter of the book, is all set to host and lead her very first royal Yuletide ball.
Although nervous and excited by the prospect, Azalea is also worried by her pregnant mother’s health; especially after the queen, who has been sickly for a long time, makes her promise to always take care of her sisters.
The worst happens when the queen passes away during the night, after giving birth to the youngest princess, Lily.
The king, always distant and formal, completely isolates himself in his grief, and refuses to have anything to do with the princesses. It doesn’t help that he is obliged to go to war to help an allied country almost immediately after the queen’s funeral.
He not only leaves the princesses on bad terms, but also in the state of mourning, which means that for one whole year, they have to wear black, stay indoors with the drapes drawn and the clocks stopped, and worse of all, not dance at all.
However, Azalea learns about a secret passage in the princess’ bedroom, which opens by magic. This passageway leads the 12 princesses to an enchanted garden with a dancing pavilion, where they meet the mysterious Mr Keeper.
Claiming to be a prisoner from the time of the evil magician High King D’Eathe 200 years before, the Keeper offers the girls a place to dance where no one will know what they are up to. Tempted by his offer, the princesses end up visiting the enchanted garden every night to indulge their love of dancing. They also swear not to reveal the secret to anyone.
Unfortunately, as Azalea soon discovers, the Keeper is more sinister than he appears, and he blackmails her into finding a way to release him from his imprisonment.
At the same time, the King returns from war and becomes suspicious over the girls’ lethargy in the mornings, and why they have to mend their worn dancing slippers, when they shouldn’t be dancing at all.
When he discovers that the princesses have sworn a magically-enforceable oath not to reveal where they dance every night, he decides to kill two birds with one stone by offering interested gentlemen an opportunity to solve the riddle of where the girls go every night, along with a chance to court the Princess Royale.
If the story seems familiar to some, it is because it is based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
I appreciate the way author Heather Dixon interprets the traditional story in her own way, while also expanding and developing the characters for a good tale.
She does an excellent job capturing the camaraderie and comedy to be expected among 12 close sisters, as well as establishing each sister’s individual character, especially the older ones.
Even the more secondary supporting male characters like Prime Minister Fairweller, Lord Bradford, and Lord Teddie, are distinctive in their own right.
The setting Dixon has chosen to put her story in is also quite interesting. Although the story takes place in the fictional land of Eathesbury, the setting is reminiscent of late 19th-century to early 20th-century England, with its traditions of mourning, as well as the P.G. Wodehouse-like slang incorporated into the dialogue – “Toodle pip”, “Great muffins!” and “Absolutely spiffing!” being some examples.
And unlike most young adult fiction books nowadays, the romance, while present, is not overwhelmingly the focus of the story – a factor I found quite refreshing.
The title, by the way, refers to a dance called the Entwine, which was created by the High King D’Eathe and represents the “capture” of a lady by her gentleman dance partner with a sash.
A refreshing interpretation of a lesser-known fairy tale, which certainly makes for a fairly light-hearted, entertaining read.