Book Uno is a new feature at Jawas Read, Too! More specifically, it’s a game. If you know the rules of Uno the card game in which players must match either colors or the face value of cards one at a time in an attempt to get rid of their entire hand, you know the basic rules for Book Uno. It’s a chance for participants to knock out a book they might already own since the challenge is to meet general requirements rather than detailed ones. Just in case, let me give you a quick explanation.
Player 1 reads a book and picks a item (type of character, setting, genre, relationship, etc…) from that book which will be the theme (or criteria) for Player 2 to use in choosing the next book in the game. Player 2 chooses a book that matches the theme chosen by Player 1 and reviews it. Players choose themes for each other, not specific books.
For example: I might read a book that has a male protagonist and decide I want the next player to review a book that also has a male protagonist. As long as the book is Speculative Fiction and features a male protagonist, it’s a fair play for that move.
Last month, Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers, read and reviewed The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle. I did not expect them to pick a theme near and dear to my heart. It was all too easy to find a book to fit the criteria.
I love fairy tale re-tellings. They can be wonderful when done well or inordinately frustrating when not. The particular tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has had several modern versions. More recently, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler, and Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George. There is also, of course, the Robin McKinley tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” in the short story collection The Door in the Hedge.
Suffice to say, this is a well loved tale and one that I think has only benefited from modern interpretations. It’s also the fairy tale I happened to choose.
Teodor has raised his daughters to be independent, self-sufficient individuals. In the 14th century, this is a radical idea. When women spend their time cultivating social graces and the domestic skills acceptable for wives to have, the five sisters appear peculiar—especially Paula and Jena with their interest in scholarship and business, activities usually reserved for men. It’s this climate of progressive attitudes that cousin and neighbor, Cezar, finds himself in need of correcting. Teodor has fallen ill and the cold Transylvanian winter is only making him worse. A trip to the warmer climes of Constanta is one of his last hopes, but it means leaving his daughters behind in the care of household servants, Petru and Florica.
Stalwart and caring, the pair are more like family and support the sisters well, especially Jena. In Teodor’s absence, Jena oversees his business ventures, balancing the account books and the family’s income. But Cezar would rather assert his own ideas of propriety and swoop in when least desired to ‘right’ Teodor’s ‘wrongs.’ One by one the sisters find their liberties stripped as Cezar becomes more controlling and obsessive, even determined to barricade the sisters in their room on the night of the full moon when it is rumored a portal to the Other Kingdom connects that world with ours. A portal Cezar suspects his cousins have been using to enter a dangerously magical land that destroyed his life many years ago.
Fairy tales, as enchanting as they can be to us as children, go through many iterations. Not all of these are as empowering as they could be. In some versions of the original tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” the princesses are enchanted and forced to dance whether they want to or not. A concerned father and king uses the opportunity to bring in eligible suitors who will either solve the mystery of these nightly disappearances, winning the daughter of his choosing as the prize or walk away empty-handed. Sometimes the loser dies. These stories remove agency from female characters, leaving males in the middle of an unfair and seemingly impossible situation. Perhaps this teaches children that women need to be saved (whether the source is known or unknown) and it’s a man’s job to save her. Women are helpless. Men are problem solvers.
In Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing all of this is turned upside down. The five daughters dance because they want to. There is no spell, there is no mystery. These characters simply love their freedoms so much, they are attracted to the extra level of autonomy the Dancing Glade provides them. Little Stela plays with creatures and beings her own size, Paula debates energetically with fairy scholars, middle child Iulia finds an appreciation for her burgeoning womanhood unshadowed by her elder sisters; Jena and Tati simply love to dance and enjoy seeing their sisters so happy.
And the romance, because there are two, is even approached from the same subversive stance. The protagonist, Jena, doesn’t fall under the typical fairy tale love story. Or, she does, but it’s not as clear cut as one might suspect (there is even a second popular fairy tale snuck in). Surprisingly, it’s Tati, the eldest, who falls ridiculously in love at first sight with a tall, pale, and mysterious youth. She falls so utterly in love with him that she literally begins to physically waste away for want of his love. At one point, she is near death and only an impossible quest will save her. Jena doesn’t have this problem. Jena’s relationship is bit more real, despite most of it happening beyond the pages. Developed from a long-time friendship and nurtured as a romance that takes us to the final pages, it surprises both her and her companion, but it isn’t always easy. In fact, there is conflict and hurt feelings, all of which are very real and which must be worked through. Marillier shows that relationships, realistic ones (relatively speaking) are not always roses and sunshine. But when there is a problem between two people, resolution is possible. Including that resolution as part of the general narrative goes a long way to improving on the traditional “and they lived happily ever after” ending.
Certainly fairy tale re-tellings can achieve wonderful things by subverting traditional tropes as Marillier has done here, but the nature of this kind of story means some tradition is required. Unfortunately for the sisters, their enemy is their cousin. Cezar is patronizing, cruel, and sexist. As frightening and frustrating as he is, he also has alarmingly realistic motives, however misguided they are. I found his story tragic and not entirely two dimensional, but his brutishness borders on transparency to the point where his actions became predictable. However, his reactions are very human even in his lack of compassion for anyone other than himself.
As much as I could appreciate these commendable and astute elements of the novel, not everything worked well for me. There is some discussion of Transylvanian mythology here with the story taking place beside and in the mythical Wildwood rumored to be the source of magic and trickery. Forests can be very powerful things in literature and real life. The Wildwood itself has a rich history that Marillier draws on and I really enjoyed how this was worked into the narrative. The villagers and the Wildwood have a complicated relationship that relies on mutual respect, a respect that is not merely for humankind looking out for one another, but one that is based on a broader understanding of the world around us and how our actions can affect nature as well as these imagined magical creatures.
What I did not enjoy as much is really symptomatic of how popular culture has been ingrained on my psyche. The Night People are one of these rich Romanian mythologies translated to the fiction of Wildwood Dancing that are described as sinister, albeit misunderstood individuals, pale and brooding with oddly pointed teeth. In other words, as much as Marillier avoided the comparison (and for good reason), I could not help but see these people as the very things she wanted to avoid: vampires. The village fear of puncture wounds and victims who themselves transform, over time, to one of the Night People only exacerbated this idea in my head. To Marillier, I apologize. But I could not help seeing vampires in the middle of a fairy tale that is usually as far away from vampires as one could get.
There were moments in the story where I felt the sisters were too passive. Jena merely argued when Cezar took away the family’s strong boxes. She did the same for the ledgers, but went one step further: she just gave them to him, even over her verbal objections. He’s a tyrant. I understand. And he’s a big strong male. And a bully. I suppose my frustration here comes from my inability to comprehend the reality of the situation, where the story needed to go, and my own expectations. For such a strong female protagonist, I wanted more from Jena. And I also thought it was a little unfair that it was she who was chastised for becoming a bit self-involved after losing Gogu when the same was never demanded of Tati who, in my opinion, was a bit self-involved for the majority of the novel. Then again, Tati is the fairy tale sister. Her story is quite different from Jena’s and not concerned with the same responsibilities, if any.
The strengths of this novel are many: strong and assertive female protagonist, subversion of a traditional fairy tale, and a more or less realistic romance to name a few. The prose is lush and serves the fairy tale setting well, but is perhaps too descriptive. There were points, especially in the beginning, where I found myself bored with extraneous detail. This made it difficult for me to immediate get into an otherwise engaging story. Still, the Other Kingdom came alive time after time. Readers of fairy tales and connoisseurs of slow burn romances will find much to enjoy in this ethereal tale of human nature, tough decisions, and responsibility.
Release Date: January 23, 2007
Reviewed Format: Library edition
If you want to see what theme I pick for the next player in the game and who they will be, stay tuned for the May edition of Book Uno!
Book Uno is a new, regular feature on JRT. It’s a collaborative effort between Erika and other book bloggers to promote all types of Speculative Fiction books. Until she works out the kinks, game play is by invitation only.