Princess Una is a romantic sort, indulged by her father and plagued by her little brother. But when the Twelve-Year Market–a collection of bizarre vendors and exotic goods–emerges from Goldstone Wood, something alien enters her heart. Or was it already there? A burning desire for something she doesn’t know will haunt her dreams and come close to destroying her life.
Meanwhile, her conventional romantic notions find something wrong with all the men vying for her hand: Prince Aethebald of Farthershore is too plain, Prince Gervais too frivolous, the Duke of Shippening too fat and greedy. Only Lionheart, whom she meets while he’s disguised as the jester Leonard, wins her love. But only one loves her, and it’s not Lionheart. Nor is it the last suitor who appears: a dragon in fearful man’s garb, who claims he’s won her in a wager with his enemy. Uma can’t resist him, because dragonish seeds have been sown in her own heart. She’s been warned: “there were always the villains of the tales, men or women who saw beauty in terrible things, who found dragon poison as pleasing as perfume.” But once ensnared she is powerless to undo the enchantment.
There are worthy themes here, such as false trust, falling prey to deception, and allowing desire to give birth to sin (see James 1:15: “. . . and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death”). It will be interesting to see where the series goes, but this first title goes on too long and the symbolism is too obscure (though maybe that’s just me). Also, the characters don’t have enough appeal to make this reader care very much about them. A tighter focus would have helped.
The Oakenfolk are dwindling since the faery Jasmine stole their magic and escaped the massive oak that was their home. No new faeries have appeared and the Oakenfolk are about to lose their ruler. But before she dies, Queen Amaryllis divides her remaining magic between Valerian the healer and Linden, a young, untried faery who is to be sent out into the world. The power Linden receives is Glamour–”the spells of illusion and temporary change”–which allows her to change her size and appear human. Her mission is to find other faeries who still have magic they may be willing to lend.
Meanwhile, Timothy Sinclair, a missionary kid whose parents are in Africa, has been suspended from his Christian boarding school and is sent to stay temporarily with his cousin Paul. Timothy misses Uganda; he doesn’t fit in at school, and he’s beginning to question his faith. He’s always liked Paul, and felt a special affinity for the huge oak in Paul’s back yard. But when Paul and his wife Peri appear to see him as an unwelcome distraction, Timothy decides to hide out in London for a few days, not knowing that Linden has hitched a ride in his backpack. After resolving some obvious misunderstandings, Linden and Timothy form an unlikely partnership to save the Oak and its inhabitants. Learning to trust each other is only the first step–the next is to determine which of the potential allies they meet are really enemies.
This is not so much a Christian novel as a novel with Christian characters. How do faeries fit into such a context? They were created to help humans but have grown hostile toward them (because of the Fall? not clear). They worship the Great Gardener; who doesn’t appear to have a Son. When Timothy and Linden approach the secret island that will take them to the Children of Rys (another faery race) the access is by merit, which Timothy must admit he doesn’t have. He is accepted on Linden’s merit: a picture of grace, among creatures who don’t seem to know grace.
Timothy is a relatable character; his struggles with faith are honest and though they’re not resolved by the end, he’s learned the right questions. Christian influences help him along the way, like Pastor Owen Jenkins of Gospel Chapel in Wales: “There’s not a belief in the world can save you from doubt.” Faith can’t be objectively verified at every point–or it wouldn’t be faith. But it can be reasonably pursued and honestly embraced.
The royal family of Eathesbury is rich in girls, but not much else. On the night Princess Azalea is to host her first Yuletide ball, her mother delivers a daughter–girl number twelve–before dying of an illness that’s been ravaging her for months. The family is cast into a yearlong official mourning period made darker by the girls’ father’s coldness and apparent lack of interest in them. Just when the three oldest are eligible for gentlemen callers, and Azalea herself, as Princess Royale, should be looking for a consort-to-be, everybody is swathed in black and not allowed to dance, wich is the thing they love best. (As did their mother.)
Then they discover a secret passage to an underground forest, leading to a magic pavilion where a mysterious gentleman called the Keeper presides. Dark, tall, and devastatingly handsome, he invites them to return every night and dance their cares away. But such hospitality comes at a price, involving captured souls, the legendary evil High King, the blood oath, the silver oath, and the deepest sort of magic that has no name. The complex dance that Keeper proposes could steal their souls if old hurts are not healed and new alliances are not kindled.
If this sounds a little familiar, it’s based on the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, one of my favorite fairy tales as a pre-teen because it involved so many fancy dresses! The retold story is slightly tousled, like Azalea’s auburn hair: a bit hard to follow and overlong at first. But I came to like these people so much it was a pleasure spending time with them. Set in a vaguely Victorian milieu, the girls are so proper they gasp when their father says the word “Undergarments” out loud, and the courtships of Azalea and her sister Clover are so circumspect we’re almost begging their suitors to “Just kiss her!”
The story has its darker side, and some scenes are genuinely frightening. But I very much like the vision of dance as a metaphor for marriage: “Mother had told her of that perfect twining into one. She called it the interweave, and said it was hard to do, for it took the perfect matching of the partners’ strengths to overshadow each others’ weaknesses, meshing into one glorious dance.” Dance also serves as a metaphor for relationship, joy in living, soul. And a case for “something else” beyond, the “flicker” inside.
It’s not a Christian novel; though Mass and Christmas are celebrated they seem to have no relevance to life. The writing is often lovely, slightly quirky and humorous. It celebrates not only balls and poufy dresses but ordinary things: “She wanted to give him toast. The sort that had melted butter and a bit of honey spread on top. It was a stupid thought, but there was something comforting about toast.”
In fact, the joy of the ordinary is where true magic resides: it’s the devil who plays supernatural tricks. That’s a common theme in each of these stories, and typical of the genre, in fact. All fairy tales end when the hero comes home.
Other cultures, further thoughts: see A Story, A Story for musings on African folk tales, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians for a modern-day spin on Greek mythology. And don’t miss Is Your Daughter God’s Little Princess? for a deeper look at what some fairy tales communicate.