Wildwood Dancing -- Juliet Marillier
Wildwood Dancing is partly* a re-imagining of The Twelve Dancing Princesses:
I've heard it said that girls can't keep secrets. That's wrong: we'd proved it. We'd kept ours for years and years, ever since we came to live at Piscul Dracului and stumbled on the way into the Other Kingdom. Nobody knew about it--not Father, not our housekeeper, Florica, or her husband, Petru, not Uncle Nicolae or Aunt Bogdana or their son, Cezar. We found the portal when Tati was seven and I was six, and we'd been going out and coming in nearly every month since then: nine whole years of Full Moons.
Jenica (Jena to her friends and family) is sixteen years old, the second oldest of five girls. They and their widowed father live in Transylvania, in a crumbling castle called Piscul Dracului, or the Devil's Peak. For the last nine years, the sisters have made monthly visits to Other Kingdom -- the Faerie Realm -- for nights of dancing, music, debate and merriment. While they are aware that the Other Kingdom is fraught with dangers, they are always very careful, and consider their trips to be mostly safe.
Everything changes when, due to illness, their father leaves Piscul Dracului for the winter. He leaves Jena and Tati in charge, with their Uncle Nicolae (who lives in the next castle over) looking on in an advisory capacity. Everything was well thought out and well planned.
Or so they thought.
Unfortunately, no one thought to make a What-If-Our-Cousin-Makes-A-Powergrab plan, and no one thought to make a What-If-Tati-Falls-In-Love-With-One-Of-The-Dreaded-Night-People plan.
Jena has a number of tasks ahead of her -- a single one of them would be difficult, but all together, they're seemingly impossible -- luckily, she has her trusty frog (who speaks telepathically only to her) Gogu to advise her.
I enjoy fantasy stories that double as historical fiction, and I enjoy re-tellings of fairy tales, so I was predisposed to like this one. That said, I had mixed feelings. I loved the world -- worlds, really -- that Juliet Marillier created. For me, they were really the strongest element, lush and vivid. Jena and Gogu's relationship was well done, as was the relationship between the sisters, though the younger sisters never really achieved real person-ness**.
I had two major problems. One, by page 84 -- I dogeared it to mark the spot -- I knew exactly what was going to happen. There were a very few specifics I didn't know, of course, but for the most part, at that moment, I knew how everything was going to go. At the time, I thought that it wouldn't make a difference.
It did. I felt myself waiting for the events I knew were coming, rather than enjoying the moment I was reading about. And then, when those events took place, BAM, BAM, BAM, I found myself irrationally irritated. I honestly don't know if that is because the book runs along a truly predictable path, or because I'm amazingly brilliant. Let's go with brilliant. It's nicer for everyone involved.
My other problem was Cezar. I'm pretty sure that I was supposed to have mixed feelings about him, but I didn't. I hated him so much that even reading about him was unpleasant. As he was a major character, it made much of my reading experience Less Than Enjoyable.
School Library Journal gave Wildwood Dancing a starred review and Booklist gave it a nice write-up as well. Maybe I was just cranky? I don't think so, but we'll see. I'm going to hand my copy off to some of the teen girls and see how they feel.
I adore the cover art. After finishing the book, even more so -- there are details in the picture that make it clear that the artist had some knowledge of the book. Hooray! Like Gogu, of course, and the gargoyle that hitched a ride on Jena's shoulder, Tati and Sorrow on the right, the other Night People on the left, and Draguta with her white fox down at the bottom. Ileana is even wearing a feathered headdress. Nice one.
I'd try it on fans of the Libba Bray books, as well as (obviously) those who enjoy fairy tale re-writes.
[Later: Word of warning -- People have let the spoilers fly in the comments, so don't click if you don't want to know!]
*It's a re-imagining of another story, as well, though naming it would be a major spoiler, and it plays with Transylvanian folklore, tradition and culture.
**There is Paula, the scholar, Iulia, the flirt, and Stela, the baby. A bit like the younger Bennett sisters, now that I think about it. It made sense, story-wise, that they weren't the focus, and really, if they'd been fully-fleshed out characters the book probably would have been twice as long, but still, there you have it.