For the past few years, the Old English Thorn and I have spent New Year staying with some lovely friends of ours in Edinburgh. We play lots of games, eat lots of food, drink lots of dubious concoctions and generally have a marvellous time. Even so, there are always times when you just want to curl up with a book in the midst of all the fun. My first book of 2012 then had to be one which was engaging but not too taxing; one which I could abandon at a moment’s when called upon to make up numbers for a game and come back to several hours later without being confused; one which I could sit in the corner of the room and read while others were playing board games. I turned to a tried and tested author to meet the challenge, and so my first book of 2012 was Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Mariller.
Like Marillier’s adult novels that I’ve read before, Wildwood Dancing is a take on fairy tales and folklore. This one combines aspects of the twelve dancing princesses and the frog prince, as well as drawing on Romanian vampire mythology and local folklore to give it a wonderful atmosphere. When their father becomes sick and must go away to be treated, Jena and her four sisters are left behind and Jena takes over the running of the family home. Times are hard, but the sisters find escape in their monthly nighttime visits to the fairy kingdom in the wildwood where they are welcomed as friends to join in the revels. Jena also finds solace in the company of Gogu, a frog with whom she is able to talk and who is her closest friend. However, their cousin Cezar does not believe that the girls can look after themselves and imposes himself on their lives. At the same time, he is also attempting to destroy the wildwood. Although he claims this is for the safety of the girls and the villagers, and as revenge for the mysterious death of his older brother Costi, his motives are not all that they seem.
A fairytale adaptation is always a double edged sword because its strength is also its weakness: I already know what will happen because I already know the story. I know that frogs kissed will turn into men, that how something is said is as important as what is said, and that you should always be careful what you wish for. Above all, I know that things are rarely what they seem. Anyone likely to read a book like this is probably approaching from a similar position of prior knowledge and experience, and it takes a skillfull author to manage to write a story that satisfies the fairytale conventions while escaping the trap of feeling like something that’s been read before. Juliet Marillier is such a writer (Daughter of the Forest is one of my favourite books) but this book didn’t quite get there for me. The story, while enjoyable enough, erred on the side of obvious, to the point of making some of the characters unreasonably dense at times in order to further the plot. There may be a dream sequence inserted to explain this, frankly, silly behaviour, but it feels like a contrived and flimsy way of excusing the heroine’s strange refusal to act on things which the reader can see that she obviously should.
Frustrations aside, there was a lot that I really enjoyed about this novel. I liked the Romanian setting and the way that this colours all aspects of the book, from the character names to the food to the folklore. I also liked the way that the setting, both the time and the place of the book, made Jena’s struggles to maintain her control over the family fortunes seem very real and understandable. All too often it is easy to dismiss fantasy heroines who are dependent on men for either their day to day existence or for rescue as weak or somehow deficient, but Jena has no choice but to cede to her cousin Cezar’s polite but forceful requests to hand over her family’s money and the running of their affairs to him. In fact, even though it feels wrong both to Jena and the reader, it is clear that what he is doing is the right thing albeit for the wrong reasons. I also loved the inventive descriptions of the wildwood folk and their celebrations, which were just the blend of expected fairy tale convention and authorial creativity which I have come to expect from Juliet Marillier.
On balance, this was an enjoyable but unexceptional book, though perfect for the situation in which I read it. It was entertaining but the story was too simple and obvious for it to be truly engaging and the interesting details of time and place, while they added flavour, were not quite enough to make up for this.
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier. Published by Tor, 2007, pp. 370. Originally published in 2007.