|I'm glad to see bumpits exist in Azalea's world.|
In Heather Dixon's debut novel Entwined, Princess Azalea's mother has just died, leaving behind twelve daughters and an emotionally distant husband. The king grieves for his dead wife but leaves his twelve daughters to their own devices, his only real interaction with them occurring when he institutes a mandatory period of mourning, to last an entire year. For that year, the girls are not allowed to go outside, they must wear black, they must cover all mirrors, and they are not allowed to dance. This last requirement is the worst, since dancing is one of their true joys and something they shared with their mother.
The old, ramshackle palace the girls live in has some magic in it, though, and one night, Azalea and her sisters find a secret passage to an underground place where the sun shines and the Keeper, who lives there, allows them to dance all night to their hearts' content. But the Keeper is more malevolent than he seems, and he has plans for the girls, for the king, and for the kingdom in which they live.
I'm a sucker for fairy tales re-told, and the Twelve Dancing Princesses has been a popular one lately. It's not one of the best known, so it hasn't been done to death like Cinderella has, but it does present some unique challenges. For one thing, if you've chosen to write this particular fairy tale, you've automatically saddled yourself with twelve characters. Making each of these characters distinct from one another without resorting to cliches has got to be a monumental challenge, and authors have attempted it with varying levels of success.
With Entwined, Heather Dixon succeeds at this better than others I've encountered recently. For one thing, she doesn't take the easy way out and completely marginalize all but one of the princesses. Azalea is clearly our protagonist, but there are two nice subplots involving the next two eldest princesses. There's also enough interaction between the sisters that the reader gets an idea of at least some of their personalities, although not all of the sisters are fully realized. Putting myself in the shoes of the author, though, it makes me slightly panicky thinking about how to make twelve characters three-dimensional in a single debut novel.
One thing I really enjoyed about Entwined was the description of the dances. I'm not a dancer myself and have always envied those who were able to move with such grace. Reading Entwined, I was able to see each of the dances in my mind's eye - they're beautiful and have their own more metaphorical magic, in particular the "soul curtsy" which is featured in a pivotal moment in the book. Dixon's writing shines at these points.
Of course, there were a couple of sticking points. First and foremost: the story dragged in the first 100 pages or so. There's a lot of exposition and it seems to take quite awhile before Dixon buckles down and gets to the meat of the story. It's important to set up the background and establish the character's relationships, but ideally these aspects should be developed over the course of the story, not crammed all into the first section before the real story begins. Once I was past those first pages, though, I was hooked.
Dixon also tries to do something different with both the magic and the kingdom's government. This can be risky since the reader doesn't already have a frame of reference to absorb the new information. The author must be careful to explain such nuances of the world clearly and precisely, otherwise it won't be understandable. I'm afraid I never really did understand how the magic in Dixon's world worked, and neither did I fully understand how the world's system of government worked (there's their father the king, who has some power but no money, and then there's a prime minister, who appears to have lots of money, and another political party that opposes the king, and it's more than a little confusing and I never did figure it out). It's clear that Dixon tried to make her world markedly different from the carbon copies seen in fairy tale re-tellings, but she didn't quite succeed.
There were a few other small things that niggled at me, but all in all, Entwined is a good addition to the long list of these types of stories. There's three (yes, three!) sweet romances and a nicely creepy baddie. There's no real question how it will end, but the journey there is an enjoyable one, made more enjoyable by the interesting characters and often funny subplots Dixon incorporates. I read Entwined about the same time as I read Merrie Haskell's very different middle-grade twist on this same fairy tale, The Princess Curse, which publishes in September (and I'll have a review for that one a bit closer to that date). It's interesting to compare the two, but I admit I'm done with the Twelve Dancing Princesses for awhile.
Copy checked out from my local library.