"If you danced from midnight to six A.M. who would understand?" --Anne Sexton, "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," Transformations
A king wakes up each morning to find his twelve daughters’ dancing shoes in tatters yet again. Clearly, they go dancing at night, all night, every night, but where, why, and with whom? His questions about their nocturnal exploits go unanswered and his efforts to solve the problem himself—including locking them in at night—have no effect. Finally, in desperation, he proposes a challenge: any man who can discover the cause of the worn-out slippers will be permitted to marry one of his daughters—and consequently inherit his kingdom—as a reward. This story, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, is a classic fairy tale and serves as the inspiration for Jessica Day George’s excellent Princess of the Midnight Ball. George’s book is faithful to the fairy tale but she breathes new life into it and makes it her own with lovable characters and a story that, though based on an oft-told tale, still manages to surprise and intrigue. At the forefront of all this stands our hero, Galen, an experienced soldier at the ripe old age of “not quite nineteen.” When the long war ends, Galen gets a job in the palace gardens and starts collecting clues about the princesses’ mystery. As soon as I met Galen, the book had me. He’s kind, courageous, and puts all the princes in the book (and there are more than a few) to shame. And he knits. Knits! Be still my heart! Not only does he knit, but his knitting becomes vital to the plot. Best of all, he never sees the princesses as his key to the kingdom but as human beings in need of help.
As for the princesses, I admired that George included all twelve, rather than reducing the number to a more manageable three or six. As a result, we only get to know a few (Rose, Lily, Poppy, and Pansy—yes, they’re all named after flowers) but this suits the story. Twelve fully developed princesses would have cluttered up the works. As it is, we know the ones we need to know; the rest are defined by one or two characteristics allowing them to stay in the background without turning into ciphers. I liked that the princesses ranged in age from 17 to 6 and that these differences in age weren’t ignored as they are in most versions. Galen interacts with each of them differently—I particularly loved his moments with seven-year-old Pansy (so adorable). The romance (of course, a romance) between Galen and Rose, the eldest princess, starts off slow and builds over the course of the book.
George writes with warmth, humor, and obvious affection for her characters. Her descriptions of the underground kingdom are strikingly beautiful. You’ll be transported. Overall, a magical and truly enjoyable reading experience I heartily recommend.