The Twelve Dancing Princesses was always one of my favorite fairy tales, and The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler, is the third novel-length reinterpretation of the story that I've read in the past year (I'm not counting the picture book version I also read).
You'd think the story would get a bit stale after so many retellings, but the bare bones style of fairy tales in general leaves plenty of room for the imagination. Toss a few creative liberties into the mix, plus generous doses of style, and.... well.... you could end up with something that feels completely new and exciting.
The barest bones of this story look like this: young sisters mysteriously disappear in the depths of night to dance until the wee hours.
Of course there is more. There are twelve, they are princesses, a soldier with a cloak of invisibility seeks to uncover the truth. Like many fairy tales, the original story itself is strange and not terribly sympathetic. But it does evoke beautiful imagery.
The Thirteenth Princess sticks fairly close to the original story, straying most obviously in the addition of another daughter born after the rest and who has been raised as a servant. As an outsider but still a devoted sister, young Zita cannot just sit back and watch as her sisters grow weak and sickly for no apparent reason. And although we, being in the know, might figure out that they are probably dancing, there is still plenty of mystery as to why.
After finishing The Thirteenth Princess, I was left with the feeling that stylistically it was pretty much the opposite of Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George.
While The Thirteenth Princess follows Zita and her friend Breckin, younger brother of our soldier-hero, Princess of the Midnight Ball follows Galen, the soldier himself, and Rose, oldest of the twelve princesses.
But oddly enough, it's not just the ages of the protagonists that seem reversed. While I read Princess of the Midnight Ball, I was struck by how young and carefree the characters seemed. Despite the darkness of the premise, the story felt light, refreshing. The romance was sweetly awkward. In contrast, although the main characters are years younger, the whole tone of The Thirteenth Princess feels darker, heavier, older, and the romances far more intense.
While I enjoyed both interpretations, my favorite retelling by far was Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier. Perhaps it is not coincidental that it shares the fewest similarities with the original material. Beautifully written and set in pre-Dracula Transylvania (and dressed in the most stunningly intricate and accurate cover I have ever seen), the story follows Jena, second of five sisters, as she struggles to hold the family and business together as her father is away and her brooding cousin is a little too close for comfort.
(Esther and I are going to dual review this someday, really, we are)