What if the twelve dancing princesses had another sister? That’s the premise of The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler, retelling the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses from the point of view of their youngest sister, Zita.
This story starts out by tackling the question of why the king and queen opted to have quite so many children. The king desperately wanted a son (as kings usually do, in medieval-type kingdoms), but instead, daughter after daughter was born. Finally, the queen died giving birth to the thirteenth princess, Zita. The king blames her for the death of his wife, and the end of his hopes to have a son, and banishes her to live in the kitchens as a servant. As she gets older, she finds ways to secretly spend time with her sisters, and when they became mysteriously ill (and their dancing slippers keep mysteriously wearing out), Zita and her friends have to investigate to save the princesses.
I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s a cute story about a spunky girl, and it is nice to see a girl with close ties to the princesses rescue them, instead of a strange man coming in to save the day, as happens in the original. There’s some good description, especially about the damp, moldy castle–because when you think about it, a castle built over a lake probably would be moldy!
Somehow this just didn’t quite grab me, though. I don’t think it’s only that I’ve read so many versions of the fairy tale. There really are some issues here. For one, while the essential concept of the youngest, semi-banished princess is interesting, it also felt contrived. It’s hard to imagine a king actually doing this, or having his court go along without batting an eye. The king has twelve daughters who live like, well, princesses, and one who’s banished to the kitchen. It almost feels like a story about child neglect, with a parent who targets just one child, while a lot of good people watch this happening and don’t do anything–everyone in the castle knows what’s going on, and no one does anything. I don’t think Zahler was trying to write social commentary, but the situation creates a strange undertone to the story. Zita isn’t being abused, but she’s still in a dramatically different situation than her sisters, while right alongside them. It is, at the very least, incredibly socially awkward, to an extent that I don’t feel like Zahler really dealt with.
Zita’s separation from her sisters and status as a servant are essential to the plot, but I wish Zahler had found a different way to set that up. Create a question about her parentage (though that could be dicey in a Juvenile book), or say that her identity had to be hidden, or something…
The focus on Zita’s story also means that we spend less time on the twelve older princesses. I’ve already seen authors with longer, more-focused books stumble over dealing with a cast of twelve princesses. They’re often under-developed as characters, but this book is one of the worst for that. Arguably, they were never meant to be developed, since the book is about Zita, but it’s about Zita’s relationship with her sisters, and the major conflict of the plot is how to save them…so for the book to work, we have to care about them. Other than in a vague, general way, I don’t. They’re perfectly nice girls, but I don’t care about them as individuals.
Zahler doesn’t help matters by giving all the princesses A names–Aurelia and Alanna and…I can’t remember any of the others. I’m on shaky ground criticizing that decision, since when I wrote a retelling, I gave my princesses A names too (but mine all have nicknames and are rarely called by their identical-sounding A names). The only princess who’s developed at all is Aurelia, the oldest. The others occasionally get a comment in the narration to say that one likes to read or another is the prettiest or whatever, but none of that really goes anywhere. I only remember there was one named Alanna because of Tamora Pierce, and I don’t remember anything about that particular princess anyway.
On the other hand, Zita is a pretty good character, marked by strong loyalty to her sisters, and she’s in an interesting place trying to figure out her role and her relationship to her family. I don’t feel like that was explored quite as much as I’d like, but there was at least some good character development there. Her friends are Breckin the stable boy and Babette, a witch they meet out in the woods. They’re both reasonably good characters, if somewhat straight-forward in their friendship for Zita and their desire to help the princesses.
I think that might be the key to my reservations about this book. There are themes and characters that could have been more complex, and weren’t. What IS there is good, fun, interesting…but the book feels like it could have been more. I’m sure there are those who would tell me that this is a kids’ book, so how complex does it need to be…but I’ve ranted before about how deep kids’ books can be. This book is set up to be about parental neglect, sibling rivalry, discrimination (against magic-doers), thwarted love, and class divisions…but most of that isn’t really dealt with.
It’s a fun little story, and if you want a light, quick read, it’s a good one. But don’t expect it to be more, and if you only have time for one novel about the Twelve Dancing Princesses, there are others I’d recommend instead.
Author’s Site: http://www.dianezahler.com/