I’m a fan of fairy tales in general, but The Twelve Dancing Princesses has always been in my top three, if not my number one favorite. I first experienced it through Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre—an adaptation that stars Lesley Ann Warren, Peter Weller, and Zelda Rubenstein!—though that version only features six princesses. It was only recently—after reading yet another novel-length reimagining of the story—that I realized why I love it so much.
I love it because even though it usually begins with a group of girls being held captive by their father—sometimes because he’s overprotective, sometimes because he’s grieving, sometimes because he’s just awful—it’s about those selfsame girls being strong-willed and smart and stubborn, about them finding a way to circumvent the rules of the household and to have lives of their own. It’s about sisters and secrets and trust, about female friendship and growing up and independence; it’s about a group of girls who are expected to be quiet and staid, but who have the desire and the NEED to cut loose; it’s about a group of girls who are kept cloistered, but who create a family and a support network for themselves.
It was reading Genevieve Valentine’s Girls at the Kingfisher Club that prompted all of this thought. It’s a retelling of the story, but set in Jazz Age New York City, featuring 12 sisters whose wealthy father keeps them locked up in the attic because he A) is embarrassed about his lack of male heir, B) believes that no sensible man would want to marry a woman with 11 sisters, and C) is a rotten jerkface tyrant. When the family fortunes begin to wane, he decides to start marrying the girls off, whether they like it or not. What he DOESN’T know, of course, is that for months now, they’ve been sneaking out at night to go dancing…and that now that they’ve tasted freedom, they’re going to be a whole lot harder to control.
It’s beautifully written, all 12 of the girls are distinctly characterized (a feat that is even more impressive when you consider all of the relationship angles involved), the atmosphere and era details are top-notch, and it’s swoony and feminist and angry-making and empowering all at the same time. It’s about responsibility and loneliness and sacrifice; it’s just as much about sisters and being a sister as it is about individuals and being an individual. It was published for the adult market, but has tremendous crossover appeal, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
Four more versions!
Entwined, by Heather Dixon
Due to rules of grieving protocol, 11 princesses—their youngest sister is a baby—are banned from dancing after their mother’s death. But because dancing is their only real comfort—their father is too wrapped up in his own misery to deal with them—they sneak away to a magical underground ballroom on a nightly basis…but the gentleman who runs the place turns out to be not so gentlemanly after all. Superfun worldbuilding, a fantastic cast of characters—the suitors are just as charming as the sisters—a surprising amount of tension, and dialogue Wodehouse fans will love.
Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George
As in the original story, this one follows the soldier-turned-detective suitor rather than the girls. In this one, the girls are cursed, rather than rebelling, and it’s ultimately the hero’s knitting skills that save the day. Which I loved. It’s also first in a series—the follow-ups are Princess of Glass and Princess of the Silver Woods—and like everything else Jessica Day George has written as of yet, they are warm and charming and winning and smart.
Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier
Only five sisters here, and this is actually a combination reimagining of two different fairy tales—the other one is a spoiler, but a major clue is that the main character is besties with a wise frog—as well as various Transylvanian folktales. The worldbuilding is absolutely lovely, and the Kinuko Y. Craft cover art pretty much says it all: this book is lush, lush, lush. Other elements aren’t as strong—neither the characterization nor the pacing entirely worked for me—but still, I can’t look at that cover without thinking back, sighing, and swooning at least a little.
The Princess Curse, by Merrie Haskell
This one is geared a bit younger—the main character is 13—but deserves a mention if only because the detective character is female. Set in Romania, young herbalist’s apprentice Reveka isn’t particularly interested in princesses, but she is interested in money…or at least, that’s her motivation before her friend ends up affected by the curse, too. This is the only one on the list that I haven’t read yet—Kirkus said it “artfully weaves humor, suspense, magic and myth into an intricate plot”—and I’m planning on requesting it at the library TODAY.
There are lots of others, including Catherynne M. Valente’s recent novella Speak Easy and of course Robin McKinley’s short story version in The Door in the Hedge. Do you have a favorite?
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.