Entwined by Heather Dixon is one of those books I saw make the rounds of several blogs I follow. And of course I was intrigued–it’s another retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” I reserved this at the library months ago, but the hold list was so long, it finally looked like it was about to come in during November. Since I was spending November writing my own retelling of the same story, I didn’t want to read this then–I was sure I’d end up subconciously plagiarizing something! So I put my request on hold, and finally read it in January, after finishing my own novel.
Entwined centers on Azalea and her eleven sisters, all named for flowers or plants and helpfully in alphabetical order: Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium and so on. I frequently had to run through the alphabet to figure out the approximate age of, say, Jessamine or Kale. The princesses’ mother dies early in the book, and the official rules of mourning restrict them from dancing for a year (among other things). The girls discover a hidden passage leading off their room, relic of a magician-king from two hundred years ago. They find an enchanted silver forest and a pavilion, whose guardian, the Keeper, tells them they are welcome to come and dance every night.
This book started slow for me. The first half was only so-so, but it did pick up in the second half. The turning point for me was when Keeper started threatening the soul of Azalea’s mother, to force Azalea to free him from captivity in the magic pavilion. It was the first time Azalea seemed to have any significant motivation, and also when she finally figured out how creepy Keeper was–which had been pretty obvious to me from the beginning. Prior to that, really wanting to dance just didn’t seem like adequate motivation to defy their father and go dancing every night in a pavilion owned by a very sinister stranger.
The romances also pick up in the second half of the book, for Azalea as well as Bramble and Clover. This actually did a lot for Bramble and Clover as characters. Prior to that, Clover was very quiet and Bramble was very immature.
That leads me to another point–this book made me think about what is perhaps the first fundamental question of retelling this story. Namely, which sister to focus on? The oldest? The youngest? Someone in between? This is a larger question than it might seem, because there seems to be an unwritten rule that the heroine has to be around sixteen or seventeen. If you give your seventeen-year-old heroine eleven younger sisters, simple math tells you that most have to be children. Making her one of the younger ones means she can have adult sisters. In a way, it’s a choice between giving your heroine a circle of peers, or making her a baby-sitter. The fact that I put it that way probably tells you already that my heroine is at the younger end, #9, with sisters ranging between the ages of 15 and 25 (with a couple sets of twins).
Azalea is the oldest princess, and she spends a lot of time looking after younger siblings. Most of them completely run together for me. Even though Bramble should be about 15, she spends the first half of the book seeming very young. It gets better when she and Clover get a little more screen time, a little more maturity, and can serve more as equals for Azalea.
Another major arc of the book was the relationship between the princesses and their father. The King starts out as very cold and apparently aloof, but ultimately develops into a caring father (who simply doesn’t always know how to relate to his daughters). Sometimes that transition is jarring, but it does come together in the end.
There are things I liked about Entwined too. Some of the description was good, and I liked the treatment of the dancing. Dixon clearly knows something about dancing, and there’s plenty of discussion about what kind of dance the princesses are dancing, and how they feel. I do feel convinced about the importance of dancing to Azalea, and there’s good description of what it means to her–for one thing, it’s a connection to her mother, and it also gives her a sense of freedom and of magic. I believe dancing is important to her–it just doesn’t seem quite important enough for some of the choices she’s making.
This was a good book, with a great climax, and nothing really wrong with it (other than some bland sisters, but with twelve there’s only so much you can do). It didn’t quite spark for me, though. Good–but not fantastic, and not particularly distinctive compared to other versions of the story I’ve read. Aside, that is, from the cover–definitely one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a while!