Saturday, May 22, 2010

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Oh my gosh, what a lovely romantic book this is.  I can totally see a well-worn (but still impeccably clean) copy of this sitting on a teenage Emma Pillsbury's bookshelf, right next to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Perrault's Fairy Tales.

Jessica Day George, author of Sun and Wind, Ice and Snow, has given us another beautifully executed and bewitching fairy-tale-turned-novel.   Princess of the Midnight Ball is based on the Grimm story The Twelve Dancing Princesses, in which twelve princesses disappear nightly into a magical land below the earth with trees of silver and leaves of gold, to dance the night away.  The king, their father, offers a reward of marriage to the prince who can discover why his daughters' dancing slippers are fresh each evening and worn out by morning. After various princes fail to do so, a soldier succeeds in the task with the help of a cloak of invisibility, and is rewarded with a princess and a kingdom.

George's version sticks closely to the original plot, but it's the embellishments that make it special.  The soldier, Galen, is a wonderful character. Raised by a soldier father and a mother who washed the soldier's clothes, Galen has no love for battle and is glad to return to civilian life at the end of the war.  He finds work as the apprentice to his uncle, Master Gardener at the Royal Palace.  It's sweet to see him courting the eldest Princess, Rose, as he works among the flowers.  And he knits, too!  He's an interesting blend of valour and domesticity.   The older princesses are well-developed characters, Princess Rose in particular. I liked how they have so much family feeling and are so protective of each other throughout the story, and how interested they are in Galen, even though he is a servant.

I always found the original Twelve Dancing Princesses to have an eerie, otherworldly mood.  It's not altogether clear what kind of magic creates the opulent underground kingdom, and whether the princesses go willingly to their ball.  Princess of the Midnight Ball darkens this otherwordly quality;  here, the girls are trapped by a bargain their dead mother made with the fearful  King Under Stone, who rules the underground land (truly an underworld) with a cold and relentless hand.  They cannot speak of the curse they are under, and when they try and rebel by staying away, the sons of the King Under Stone erupt into the Palace garden and climb the Palace walls as a warning.   They are menacing presences, these sons, and the story's suspense builds when the ultimate goal of the King Under Stone, to have the twelve princesses marry his twelve sons,  is revealed.

The daylight world, in contrast, is downright pastoral.  Although there are hints here and there of an impoverished, war-torn kingdom, the bulk of the daytime action takes place in the Palace or its lush gardens, which are so descriptively drawn you can practically smell them. The king is kindly, Galen and Rose are exceedingly well-matched, and when the King Under Stone is finally defeated, there is no doubt that our new friends will all live happily ever after.

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