This was the last Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling that I’ve read. I haven’t found any others, so unless one of you, dear readers, knows of another one, this is the last of the series.
Entwined by Heather Dixon. Dixon boldly sets the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in the Victorian era, which we can tell by the clothes and the customs. (The cover, while beautiful, is much less historically accurate than the story.) She manages to give many more of her twelve princesses distinct personalities, better than any of the other books except for Wildwood Dancing, where there were only five sisters to keep straight. Blessedly, she even named them alphabetically – Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Evening Primrose, Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale and Lily – making them the first dozen princesses I was actually able to keep track of. But onwards to the story. It’s the night of the Christmas Eve Ball. Azalea, the oldest princess, is hosting, due to Mother’s illness. Before the ball starts, Mother calls Azalea to her room and makes Azalea promise on her mother’s silver handkerchief to take care of her sisters, as well as talking about dancing. At the ball, Azalea meets a somewhat rumpled but very kind young gentleman, Lord Bradford, and it’s immediately clear that this is not the last we’ll see of him. Interestingly, Azalea is princess in a figurehead monarchy. The kingdom is run by the Parliament, which gives the royal family an allowance that isn’t quite enough to keep up the rambling, ancient palace. They also make the final choice on the spouse of the heir, which will make our Princess hesitant in matters of the heart. The country is run this way in large part in reaction to the defeated High King D’Eath, who in ancient times (Medieval? Enlightenment?) ruled the kingdom about as kindly as one might expect, given a name like D’Eath. He it was who built the palace, filling it full of secret passages and enchanted objects. Most of these are no longer in the castle, though one animated silver tea set remains.
The ball goes all right, despite all of the younger siblings hiding in the Christmas trees to watch. But in the morning, they discover that their mother has died, leaving new sister behind. The King – their father, though they call him the King – does not tell them in person. He only tells them that they will be in strict mourning for a year: All black clothes. All windows draped, all clocks stopped, no going outside except for church or Royal Business, and no dancing. But dancing is the girls’ sanity, an essential part of their relationship with each other and with their mother. So when they discover that there is a secret passage in their room that takes them not to a storage room, as they’d been told it would, but to an obviously enchanted dancing pavilion, they are delighted. They don’t ask very many questions of the pale, obviously magical man who invites them to come every night, saying that he is the Keeper of the castle. The reader will likely be more wary of him, even if he tells them that he is an ancient enemy of the High King D’Eath, trapped by him in the walls of the palace. He starts out creepy and gets truly scary, though at first he only reveals this side to Azalea.
In spite of this, the book felt much lighter than Wildwood Dancing – still probably appropriate in the teen books, rather than youth, but leavened by comedic attempts to find suitable partners for all three of the oldest sisters. There is a lot of discussion of the actual dances, so this is the book I’d recommend to dancers. (It’s rather funny how many books about dancing princesses gloss over the actual dancing.) There’s also a lot of family relationships, as the girls try to negotiate a new relationship with the King, now their only parent, no matter how cold and strict. This turned out well, though I found the King’s conversion to kindness a little too glib to be completely convincing. In any case, the story came to an exciting and satisfying conclusion, with Azalea doing a significant part of the rescue of the sisters herself. I think it’s being marketed as a teen book because of the focus on romance, though I didn’t find anything that would be inappropriate for older middle grade readers.
Fans of the book can find delightful princess Azalea paper dolls on the author’s website.