Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
Rose is the oldest of the twelve princesses of Westfalin. She and her eleven younger sisters and the beloveds of their father and kingdom, but they don’t live a charmed life. Instead, they are cursed to spend their nights dancing at the Midnight Ball of the evil King Under Stone. Galen is a young soldier-turned-gardener, returned from the front after a long war to live with the only family he has—and to work as a gardener in the king’s garden. It is there that he meets Rose and her sisters—and there that he begins to see the dark cloud hanging over the princesses. And while the king and his court try in vain to discover why the princesses’ dancing shoes are worn out night after night, and why the girls are always so exhausted, Galen may be the only one who can learn their secret—and the only one who can save them.
This is a really engaging retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” fairy tale. The burning question in that story is always, why? Why do the princesses dance? It always bothered me that the soldier revealed and stole away their secret paradise, and in exchange got to marry one of the girls. How dare he!
So I liked the curse twist in this retelling. Here, the princesses are trapped in a truly horrific curse. Early in the book, when Rose has to go dance when she’s sick, I really felt sick to my stomach for them—I felt the awfulness of their curse in my bones. So Galen’s finding their secret is a good thing—a very good thing.
Things I didn’t like: it always bothers me a little bit when an author co-opts real geography and gives in a slightly different-sounding name. Espana for Spain. Breton for Britain. Etc. And Westfalin was clearly Germany, or at the very least Germanic. If you’re going for a fantasy world, make up your own country names and geography and religion. If you’re placing your fairy tale retelling in a real time and place, then use the real names. I don’t like the wishy-washy, can’t make up her mind version of places.
Also, I know it’s a fairy tale, but the ending felt a little too happily-ever-after for me. Really? Galen the solder/gardener gets to be the king? I would even be okay with Galen getting to marry one of the princesses, but not getting the throne, but politically—he gets to be king? Really? How does that even make sense?
Maybe I am too much of a realist. Don’t get me wrong, I like happy endings just fine—but I think this ties in to my previous complaint. If you are going to model your kingdom on real places and cultures from our history, then follow through. I can’t imagine any king willingly handing over his thrown to a commoner, no matter how grateful he was. It just feels too tidy and Disney.
I think it’s very interesting to compare this retelling with another I recently read, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Mariller. In that story, the dancing was a wonderful thing, something to look forward to, and the danger came not from the fae but from fellow men.
Wildwood avoids the major pitfall of Princess--it is solidly based in time and place, in a Transylvania that feels real and right. The gender politics in that book made me bristle, but for the characters, not against the illogic of it. There, control over the business is wrested from Jena by her domineering cousin who thinks girls are not capable of a business mind. Here, Rose and her sisters are treated like full-fledged people by their father, the king.
Overall, I think Wildwood Dancing is the better book. The details hold together better—it feels more researched, more nuanced, more anchored in place and time—-more real. And the lush writing is gorgeous and captivating. That said, I enjoyed reading Princess of the Midnight Ball a little bit more—-probably entirely because Rose and Galen both were more likeable characters, and I didn’t want to shake either of them.