Long ago, in a charming place known as Piscul Dracului nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, five motherless sisters bid their father good fortune as he sets off on a quest to recover his health. While he is gone, it is up to Tati, the beautiful eldest daughter, and Jena, her sensible sister, to mind their younger siblings and keep their merchant keep in well-run order over the long winter. Despite the many tasks that require their attention, and their grave concerns over their father's health and business, they are optimistic and determined to make their father proud of their unconventional upbringing. Should they find themselves needing advice, their Uncle Nicolae and his surviving son, Cezar, live just over the way.
Every family in the area has some tale of the magical faerie beings who live in the area, none quite so mysterious or dangerously powerful as Draguta, the witch of the Wildwood. Many such stories are full of fear or tragedy, even Jena's. She was just a small girl when she and her two cousins, Costi (the eldest)and Cezar (the younger brother), were racing through the Wildwood towards the lake one summer day to see who would choose titles first in their game. When their play is interrupted by an old woman's questions, Costi declares his desire to be King of the Waters. Cezar craves the title King of the Land, and Jena quite prudently wishes to be Queen of the Fairies. Although the old woman warns them all that nothing comes without a price, even sensible Jena never thought it would cost them dear Costi's life that very day!
Now that they are grown, when Cezar finds himself in charge of his own family's affairs, he seizes the opportunity to control all affairs, business or domestic, at Piscul Dracului as well. He plans to exact his revenge upon the Fae creatures of the Wildwood for his brother's untimely demise in the lake all those years ago. Obsessed with razing the magical Wildwood, Cezar's dictatorial manner is most alarming to Jena, who leads the sisters more and more as the eldest, Tati, becomes infatuated with a mysterious stranger. As Cezar's decisions become more demanding and unreasoning over time and his grip upon them tightens, all five sisters, as well as the local villagers, suffer under his rule. Jena and her sisters have very limited choices in an age when women were not seen as capable of owning property or running a business.
Once a month, with the coming of the full moon, the sisters shed their worries though. They slip from this mortal world through a bejeweled forest and cross into Queen Illeana's underland court to dance to their hearts' content in her faerie kingdom. Jena's only confidante is her ever present and loyal frog, Gogu; an enchanted being who can speak only to her and seldom about the truths he so desperately wishes would enlighten her life. Even this haven becomes troublesome to motherly Jena though as she watches her elder sister succumbing to the dubious charms of a boy who arrives with the Night People, a tenebrious and potentially bloodthirsty group of local Fae.
Can Jena find a way to keep her cousin's obsessions from destroying them all? Will she be able to hold her family together during these trying times? Is it possible to heal wounds that have festered for years? How can she save her self or her sisters from dark magic, familial dictators, missing household funds, the fears of their neighbors, or worse yet... the spells cast by their own innocently yearning hearts?
This lovely young adult novel by Juliet Marillier is a delightful fairytale for any age reader! Like a beautifully woven tapestry, it's textures are alluring and unfold in a riot of attractive colors designed to capture the imagination. While older readers may not be surprised by the twists in this tale, it is a truly charming and well told story that certainly entertains. I have always had a special fondness for fairy tales from every culture, but especially those that have not been bowdlerized. For all their magical and fantastical nature, such tales are meant to guide and teach young children about life and the importance of making well considered choices. I have never understood, or approved, of the concept of watering stories down to make them "acceptable" for children. Obviously, Marillier doesn't believe in this silly practice either!
While young women today are not constricted by the social mores of bygone days, it is still important for them to remember that such times existed not so very long ago. Between the five sisters, Marillier gives us heroines that are wonderfully human; innovative, inquisitive, full of youthful fancy, lovingly supportive of each other, moody, fallible, but above all strong enough to learn from their mistakes. Like all the best fairy tales, the lessons contained within this tale still apply today. Just like anyone else, Jena must learn to face and properly deal with betrayal, misfortune, balancing self-discipline with instinctive impulse, unwanted advances, familial duties, balancing sensitive desires with judicious necessities, and perhaps most importantly, her own mistakes!
Our heroine and her beloved sisters face real problems and potential dire situations without ever offending delicate sensibilities. Here at Piscul Dracului the facts of life, and bewitching fantasy blend beautifully to deliver a complete and satisfying tale to enraptured readers. Wildwood Dancing makes a lovely read-aloud tale for young children that they can grow into and still enjoy later. Older readers who are already or beginning to deal with that difficult transition period between child and adult are the target audience, especially young women, and Wildwood Dancing is certainly "grown-up" enough to be attractive to that audience.
As an adult reader, I was highly entertained, enthralled with the rich fantasy aspects, delighted with the earthy sensibility of the tale and characters, and quite thoroughly enjoyed this "young adult" novel enough to purchase a copy for myself. Aspects of other beloved fairy tales are evident here, notably; The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Frog Prince and Mother Hulda. Despite a fair amount of predictability, the charm of Wildwood Dancing is undeniable. Whenever I feel burdened by the tedious or trying aspects of mundane routine, I put on my dancing shoes, slip between the covers of Wildwood Dancing, follow Jena and her sisters through their magical portal and dance with them as glide through their story; each one graceful, gleaming, powerful, and inspiring in their unifying individuality.
"Wildwood Dancing" belongs to a genre called, for some reason, Young Adult even though it would be better defined as older teen as YA books usually feature characters that are aged 15+ and often (if not always) concern themselves with formative experiences, coming of age, sexual and romantic awakenings and other subjects of major interest to older teenagers but also capable of engaging a not-so-young-adult.
And so with "Wildwood Dancing": an atmospheric fairy fantasy set in remote Transylvania in time unspecified. Janica, Tatiana, Iulia, Paul and Stella are merchant daughters and sisters, living in a castle called Piscul Dracului (Devil's or Dragon's Step: these terms are, apparently interchangeable in Romanian). The castle stands on the edge of a mysterious wildwood, which the valley people treat with respect and fear. The girls have a secret: every Full Moon they leave their bedroom using a secret, magical portal and dance the night away in the Other Kingdom: a strange, wondrous and slightly scary world sharing some aspects of space and time with the human world, but set apart. The trouble starts when the girls' father gets ill and has to leave the valley for the winter. Their cousin Cezar starts taking over, despite the girls' father leaving the running of the household and business to them. To add to the troubles, The Night People have appeared at the dancing glade in the Other Kingdom, and the eldest sister Tati has fallen for somebody they brought with them.
I wasn't particularly drawn into the "Wildwood Dancing" at first. The writing seemed a bit pedestrian, and the story commonplace (as far as a faerie story can be a commonplace one), with not much happening and nothing in the scene-setting to make up for this lack of action. But as the events gathered speed and the dilemmas faced by the girls became more serious, I started enjoying the tale. The characters are well differentiated, especially the sisters: the scholarly Paula, the desperately romantic, beautiful Tati, flirty Iulia and Jena herself, the sensible, businesslike one, the one on whose shoulders the main responsibility for the whole family lies, the one who will have to make the moral decisions, and the one who narrates the story.
The romance and growing up are the main focus of the tale, while the good-against-evil drama of the classic fantasy is somehow absent. But there is love and despair, faith and desire, trust and responsibility that all of the girls learn, while the subject of the relationship with the Other Kingdom can be easily interpreted as reflecting our relationship with nature. I also liked the fairies, witches and other fey creatures in "Wildwood Dancing": they were neither completely bad or completely good, with various realms within the Other Kingdom and even the vampire-like Night People not entirely evil, though seemed to veer quite close to it.
With its unusual setting and a mixture of magic, dramatic romance, nods to ecology and vaguely Eastern-European folklore (though in all honesty, apart from the names and possibly the chief witch Draguta, nothing seemed very far off the standard faerie imagery), "Wildwood Dancing" is a pleasant, competently written fairy fantasy, perfectly suitable for its target audience and might be enjoyed, but will be probably quickly forgotten, by all fans of the genre.
The three stars should really be three and a half, as there is nothing particularly wrong with this book, although there is nothing special about it either.
Tor paperback, 288 pages
This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk.