I obtained this book in my pre-Christmas scramble for any fairy tale retelling that wasn’t checked out at the library. Entwined had the dubious honor of being the only one of a list of twenty that was available at the time. That’s probably the only reason why I ended up reading this.
I used to believe that retellings of the Twelve Dancing Princesses couldn’t be better than okay. I didn’t realize I had this belief until after I finished the book and went to add it to my masterlist of fairy tale retellings, only to find that I didn’t even have a section for the fairy tale. Astonished, I thought back to all the versions of this fairy tale that I remember reading…and realized that, indeed, I couldn’t say that I recommend any of them. So this is not only my favorite retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses; this was the book that has made me reevaluate this fairy tale as a whole, even going back to read some of the other versions that I previously judged to be “not that good.”
When the Queen dies giving birth to her twelfth daughter, the King withdraws from his daughters with nothing more than a declaration that they are to observe mourning as tradition dictates. However, while Azalea believes that they can cope with the absence of her father, she cannot abide by the rule no dancing that accompanies mourning. Azalea’s last promise to her mother was that she would look after her eleven younger sisters; and dancing was so integral to their family, so beloved by their mother, that she knows that dancing is the only thing that might help her sisters to cope. Tension mounts in the royal household as the princesses seek out places to dance and are thwarted by their father’s strict observation of mourning at every turn. But when they find a magical passage in their bedroom that leads to a pavilion watched over by a ghost who calls himself Keeper, they think their problem is solved.
Except that Keeper might not be as kind as he seems; and their father may not be as unfeeling as the princesses feel he must be.
The most powerful element of this book is its portrayal of family. In no world is a 500-page book enough space to fully flesh out twelve princesses, their parents and supplementary characters. Azalea and Bramble are the only two princesses that are well fleshed out with character arcs. Clover and Delphinium have personality and the reader has a sense of what sorts of things they might say, while Clover even gets a character arc of sorts and a romance. Eve, Flora, Goldenrod, Holly and Ivy all have parts to play: they act more as parts of the whole than distinct individuals, though they are given distinct personality traits. The youngest three, Jessamine, Kale and Lily, are more characterized by their young ages than any personality traits.
The bottom line is that the reader gets enveloped by the affection and trust that lies between the sisters. Their interaction feels genuine and loving. There are secrets that they keep from one another, and at times they have differing agendas. But the bond between them, their relationships, are nothing short of honest and heartfelt.
The princesses’ difficult relationship with their father is also portrayed extremely well. His withdrawal from his daughters upon his wife’s death is understandable as a part of his grief to the reader; however, the effect this has on his daughters, the abandonment and betrayal that they feel as a result, is raw and drew me in until I hated the King just as much as Azalea thought she did, despite the sympathy I felt for him. As he thaws and Azalea and the reader get to see how much he does put his daughters first, it both becomes a touching story of father and daughters, and a subversion of the world of loveless, arranged marriages that the princesses believe they live in at the beginning of the book.
If I were to imagine anyone having complaints with this book, it would be to do with how simply Azalea’s mixed feelings about her father are resolved. With one simple dream sequence and a simple dialogue, all conflict is erased. However, I felt that there was truth to that—there was love between father and daughters all along; they just needed to be reminded that he was hurting, too.
I have to admit, I don’t have much to say about the romances. They are sweet, without taking over the plot. Each love interest is distinct, and the affection he has for his princess is touching.
The Keeper’s Story
So, this is a story about a family coping with the death of their mother. It’s also a story about three princesses finding love. But somewhere in there, there’s also a ghost story, tied into tales of history and magic and kings and conquerers. This was the gripping, suspenseful element of the book. And it is gripping and suspenseful. The plot, when it starts to move, is very well conceived and well executed.
However, the plot will always be secondary to the story of the family learning to cope. This plot ends up being as well-written as it is because Dixon recognized that it was secondary and wrote it as such. It tangles with and enhances the story of the family, rather than distracting from it.
I loved this book, hands down. I thought it was the best fairy tale retelling I’ve read in a long time.
But I also have to admit why this book spoke to me as deeply as it did. I read this when my life made Azalea’s particularly relatable: my mother had just died. My siblings and I were living together, coping. I had mixed feelings about our father, who seemed too wrapped up in his own problems to be the father I wanted, or needed.
So yes, it’s very possible that at another time, in another situation, I would have felt very differently about this book. However, there’s something to be said for a portrayal of a difficult, emotional situation that feels relatable and sympathetic to someone in a similar situation.