Based loosely on the fairytales of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “The Frog Prince” (but adding plenty of her own ideas), Juliet Marillier crafts an entertaining story of magic and faerie, set in the wild-lands of Transylvania. Jena is one of five sisters (Tatiana, Iulia, Paula and Stela) who have long-since kept a secret in their bedroom: a magical portal into the Other Kingdom, through which they can pass through every full moon to cavort with faerie-creatures in the Dancing Glade of the Faerie Queen.
The girls love their monthly excursions into the Dancing Glade and all the friends they’ve made there, but lately a shadow has been cast upon their lives: their father has grown sickly and must leave their estate of Piscul Dracului for the winter. Tatiana and Jena consider themselves perfectly capable of handling the estate in their father’s absence, but their controlling and possessive cousin Cezar believes it is his duty to take over the household till his uncle’s return. With a hatred of the Other Kingdom ever since the drowning of his brother in the faerie-haunted waters of Taul Ielelor, Cezar’s grip over the household and the girls’ lives quickly intensifies when he begins to suspect them of trafficking with faeries.
But Jena finds herself with further trouble: her elder sister Tatiana has fallen in love with a creature of Faerie, someone Jena believes is one of the dreaded Night People. With only her trusted friend and companion Gogu for a confidant, Jena delves further into the Other Kingdom to find answers; gambling with Night People, entering the Other Kingdom under the dark of the mind, searching for the witch Draguta, unraveling the events that took place the day her cousin Costi died…
Marillier creates a story in which the final result is better than the sum of its parts. Take any element of the story; whether it be Tatiana’s love story, Cezar’s takeover of the house, Marillier’s portrayal of Faerie or Jena’s friendship with Gogu and it is rather weak; however, because there is always so much going on throughout the story, the book ultimately fits together quite satisfactorily. Jena is a great protagonist; feisty and strong-willed, kind and courageous, without being too good to be true and she forms the backbone of the book. Her desire to protect what she loves, whether it be her sisters, her friends, her secrets or her household is the driving force of the story and she is entirely convincing in this capacity.
Unfortunately, what she is fighting for never comes across quite as strongly, and we are told, rather than shown what it is that Jena holds dear, such as her friendship with Gogu, her love of the Other Kingdom and her relationship with her sisters. We know that she holds them dear, but never really see why to any satisfactory degree. The same thing is true of Tatiana’s romance with a Night Person; we are told they’ve fallen in love without getting the chance to place any sort of investment into why we should want them to be together. All we have is Jena’s conviction, and though it is strong enough to convince us, I couldn’t help but wish there was a little more depth in some of the bonds that Marillier forms.
Because K. Y. Craft lends her skills to create breathtaking cover-art (the saying “never judge a book by its cover” is always made null and void when it is Craft doing such artwork), one cannot help but be reminded of Patricia McKillip, another author that Craft often illustrates for. At the conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel that though Marillier’s story was enjoyable, in McKillip’s hands it would have been unforgettable, especially in the portrayal of the Other Kingdom, which ultimately came across a little too structured and sentimental and not at all like the “wildwood” that the title suggests.
It’s so easy to speak of faults rather than virtues, and looking over the review I feel I’ve been a little hard on Wildwood Dancing. It is a sweet and mysterious book, with a bittersweet (and therefore satisfying) ending. It is an above-average fantasy novel — it’s always refreshing to read a fantasy that doesn’t involve magic swords, noble quests and loin-cloth-wearing heroes — with a couple of great twists and a quick-paced plot. I give it a solid three stars.
Wildwood Dancing — (2006-2007) Young adult. Publisher: High in the Transylvanian woods, at the castle Piscul Draculi, live five daughters and their doting father. It’s an idyllic life for Jena, the second eldest, who spends her time exploring the mysterious forest with her constant companion, a most unusual frog. But best by far is the castle’s hidden portal, known only to the sisters. Every Full Moon, they alone can pass through it into the enchanted world of the Other Kingdom. There they dance through the night with the fey creatures of this magical realm. But their peace is shattered when Father falls ill and must go to the southern parts to recover, for that is when cousin Cezar arrives. Though he’s there to help the girls survive the brutal winter, Jena suspects he has darker motives in store. Meanwhile, Jena’s sister has fallen in love with a dangerous creature of the Other Kingdom — an impossible union it’s up to Jena to stop. When Cezar’s grip of power begins to tighten, at stake is everything Jena loves: her home, her family, and the Other Kingdom she has come to cherish. To save her world, Jena will be tested in ways she can’t imagine — tests of trust, strength, and true love.