The malevolent King Under Stone cuts not one deal, but two, with the queen of the country of Westfalin: first, that she will be able to have children; second, that Westfalin will be victorious in its battles against other countries. In return, the human queen agrees to spend one night per week dancing with the King Under Stone in his underground kingdom. But the once-human king has an agenda, and supernatural beings have a way of twisting their agreements to find loopholes. The Westfalin queen bears no sons, but has twelve daughters ― not coincidentally, matching the number of half-human sons of the King Under Stone, who plans for his sons to have mortal wives and thus break the king out of his underground bondage.
When the queen dies before fulfilling her bargain, the King Under Stone forces her twelve daughters to finish the contract by secretly coming down to his kingdom and dancing with his dark sons. In fact, he has no intention of releasing them, and is slowly binding the girls with his magic to his kingdom, as well as preventing them from telling anyone what is happening to them. Their frantic father, the King of Westfalin, begs for help from neighboring royalty and nobility, but each young man who tries to find out why the princesses are exhausted and have worn-out dancing slippers falls asleep, fails to solve the puzzle … and then mysteriously dies. But a polite young soldier named Galen, returning from Westfalin’s latest war, is kind to an old woman who then gifts him with an invisibility cloak and some very good advice.
This young adult retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” recreates their story with a few minor twists, such as the scheming role of the King Under Stone (who is the person responsible for the young men’s deaths, not the girls’ father), the fuller development of a relationship between the oldest princess and the soldier, and Galen’s unusual aptitude for knitting (apparently it’s very useful for soldiers to be able to knit socks), which will eventually play a role in the resolution of the mystery. But in general Jessica Day George follows the traditional plotline, so the surprises are relatively mild for any reader familiar with the original story.
All twelve princesses are named after flowers ― Rose, Lily, Jonquil, Hyacinth, Violet and so forth. Who knew there were so many flower names for girls? I wasn’t able to keep any of them straight except for the two eldest, Rose and Lily, and the priggish Hyacinth. Still, with twelve sisters, this likely would have been an issue for me no matter what they were named.
I found Princess of the Midnight Ball pleasant reading but not memorable. In fairness, though, this middle grade/young adult novel seems to be aimed at a fairly young audience, who may not be familiar with the original fairy tale and who will be more apt to be enchanted by the magical world George creates and the budding romance between Galen and the oldest princess, Rose. For readers who enjoy young adult fairy tale retellings but are looking for a greater amount of depth and more twists on the original twelve dancing princesses tale, I recommend Juliet Marillier’s Romanian-based retelling, Wildwood Dancing.
George has written two sequels, Princess of Glass and Princess of the Silver Woods, which continue the series with two of the younger princesses as main characters, and also weave in themes and elements from other fairy tales (Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, respectively). I actually consider both of these sequels stronger works than this first book in the series, primarily because of the greater creativity in their plots. If you or your child enjoys Princess of the Midnight Ball, it’s worth continuing with the series.