Two of my favorite fairy tales are “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “Beauty and the Beast.” So of course I was intrigued by a novel that promised to retell both of them. The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell lived up to the promise, and it was a great book.
This is another version that tells the “Dancing Princesses” story from the POV of a girl removed from the curse itself (that is, not one of the princesses). Reveka is the herbalist’s apprentice at the princesses’ castle, and dreams of one day having an herbary of her own. She thinks she sees the way to achieve that dream by curing the princesses of their curse, and accepting the promised monetary reward. As she uses her herbcraft and her wit to delve into the mystery, she finds that things are much less black and white than they seem, and that, of course, all of this will have very unexpected consequences for her.
As always with fairy tale retellings, I love the unique touches. I love that there’s a monetary reward for women who solve the curse; most versions don’t consider how limiting a reward a princess’ hand in marriage really is. The curse has an added dimension because people who stay in the princesses’ room either fall asleep, unable to waken, or disappear entirely. That adds so much more risk to the story (and means that the King doesn’t have to behead anyone, something every re-teller finds a way around). I love that there’s a handsome friend who’s in prime position to be the love interest…but it’s all more complicated than that. And Reveka’s father–well, I should have figured out his role in the story much sooner than I did!
I felt drawn to Reveka as a heroine at once. I’m realizing that strong girls who are unappreciated by the adults in their life immediately pull me in. I want things to be better for them. Reveka has a difficult (but normal for her time) past, and big dreams for her future. She wants to solve the curse to help herself, but also to help the sleepers, so she has a realistic blend of motivations.
I liked the handling of the princesses as well. Most blend together as an amorpheous mass (there are twelve of them, after all) but it works, because I don’t feel like I’m supposed to know who most of them are. There are two that emerge as larger characters, and the rest mostly hover in the background. Since they’re rarely brought forward, I’m not struggling to place them as I read, and it doesn’t bother me that I don’t know who they are. Beyond that, they’re interestingly complex, neither the saints of most retellings or the (possible) villains of the original. They’re real girls who are making difficult choices, and while they may do some villainous things, I don’t feel that they’re heartless or evil.
This is obviously a fantasy, but it also has a historical fiction feel. It’s set in a fictional country, but one which is firmly planted in 15th-century Eastern Europe. There are references to convents and saints, and a lot of historical herb-lore. The herb-lore is never overwhelming or superfluous, and I think it serves a purpose to ground the story. That level of detail and Reveka’s level of knowledge about it gives her more maturity and depth and gives the story more…solidity is the only word I can think of. The premise (of the first half at least) reminds me of The Thirteenth Princess, but that one felt lighter and less plausible, and the heroine felt shallower. The historical grounding isn’t the only thing making the difference here, but it helps.
The story wraps up in the end, but leaves some questions unanswered and…well, I can’t fully explain without a spoiler, but I wanted a more complete wrap-up. So now I very much want a sequel! Apparently I’m not the only one, because Merrie Haskell mentions the subject on her website–but all she says is that she promises a sequel if the publishers decide to put one out. How very inconclusive! So I’m hoping, and in the meantime, it was an excellent addition to my list of Dancing Princesses retellings!
Author’s Site: http://www.merriehaskell.com/