This is a book to be read in the fall, preferably a crisp October day. Wrap yourself in a warm blanket, curl up in your favorite reading seat, lose yourself in this magical fantasy.
I believe that hard work and perseverance supersedes natural talent, but sometimes, there is just no denying that some people were just born to be writers. I have read almost every single one of Ms. Marillier's books, and while the plot sometimes doesn't work for me in her adult novels, there is absolutely no denying the fact that she is one of the best fantasy writers out there today. Her characters, male and female, are believable, flawed, complex, interesting. The side characters are present, they are crucial; they are never relegated to the background at the expense of highlighting the main character's perfection. The settings within her books are always spectacularly wrought, be it a Celtic-based fantasy, or a dark Transylvanian village and castle within this book.
The plot flows like the finest silk. The writing is so beautiful that it fills me with joy. This is the kind of book you read in whispers, in a quiet reverence.
You want a beautiful setting? You got it. You want sisterly relationships that are better, (yes, I said it, BETTER) than Pride & Prejudice? Boom. You want magic? It's here. Read this book.
The Plot: This book is a retelling of the 12 Dancing Princesses, with a little Transylvanian vampire lore thrown into the mix.
There are five loving sisters living in a old, crumbling castle; they don't always get along, but there is no denying their love for one another. Jena is our narrator, the second oldest, the practical, rational, responsible one.
There is a magical gathering inside an enchanted land, in which mystical, fantastical creatures gather and dance under the light of the full moon. The cold, dark, starkly beautiful landscape of the forest, the wildwood, the Deadwash, Tǎul Ielelor.
There is a forbidden love between the much-beloved oldest sister and a tragic creature of the night. A clash between the two worlds that should never be.
There is a quest for vengeance from a bitter, controlling, cruel young man. A cousin of the family who is determined to destroy all that is magical about the Transylvanian forest.
There is a deep friendship between that young woman and her improbable pet, a magical frog.
There is a young woman's quest to keep her family together, and to save the enchanted land which they love so much, while learning her own inner strength and discovering the depths of her own heart.
The Setting: I know I am being so repetitive here, but there's no other words to describe the setting of this book. It is just magical, it is wondrous, in every sense of the word. Real life takes place in a village of Transylvania. It is a small village, overlooked by a grand, decaying, crumbling castle that is no less beloved for its ancient age, and its oddity in construction.
It looked as if it had grown up out of the forest, with an assortment of bits and pieces sprouting from every corner: tiny turrets, long covered walkways, squat round towers, arches, and flagpoles.
Piscul Dracului is the idyllic home of the five sisters and their loving widower father, a merchant who often travels. As children, the sisters stumbled upon a secret portal to a land of magic, the Bright Between, where festivities take place on the night of the full moon.
A circle of autumn-clad trees sheltered the grassy sward, their branches hung with still more lanterns. These cast a warm light over the brightly clad revelers, whose gowns and masks, robes and jewels filled the open space with a swirling mass of color. Above them, creatures performed aerial dances of their own, some borne on delicate, diaphanous wings, some on leathery, creaking membranes.
They wear their finest dresses and their sturdiest shoes, for they will dance all night surrounded by all sorts of creatures, bizarre and beautiful and everything in between. Every girl has their place in a clique here, from witches to dwarves to flying, feathery things that they call friends. As strange as they may seem to an observers, these odd beings are kind, friendly, welcoming. They have known these girls since some of them were little more than toddlers.
Stela was with the smallest folk, down near the musicians. There was a double ring of them, weaving in and out and around about in a dance of their own. Some had wings, some horns, some feathers, and some shining, jewel-bright scales. They were chattering like a mob of little birds as they pranced to and fro, and still managing to get every step perfect. We’d all started here; as we grew older, we had been welcomed by different folk, collected by different ferrymen, and permitted to mix more widely. Dancing Glade had its own set of rules.
It is a joyous, festive party, a bright spot in their everyday lives.
But not all is bright. We see the darkness, the growing suspicion and fears of the villagers as they grow to distrust the unseen creatures of the wild. Rest assured, the world of the village and the atmosphere is equally compelling. The setting in its entirety is so well-described, so beautifully spun. It is a feast for the imagination.
The Characters: I absolutely adored the sisters and their relationship. The five sisters within this book actually feel a lot like the five Bennet sisters, in some ways (albeit rather more lively). We have Tatiana, the eldest, the dreamy beauty whose love story is filled with obstruction; it may feel like a bit of a stretch, but I see a lot of Jane in her. Tatiana is deeply romantic, a lovely, sweet, gentle soul, easily hurt. Then there is Jenica, or Jena, our main narrator. I adored her. She is strong, she is the glue that holds the family together while their father is away. She handles a lot of the household affairs, she coordinates her sisters, she is ordinary, but wonderfully strong, rational, and above all else, loyal to her sisters. She is a thinker, she is too much of a thinker, and too wary at times, but Jena only wants the best for her family. Though strong, Jena is not without doubt, and it is hard to earn her trust. She has a good head on her shoulders.
“I don’t trust easily,” I said. “I don’t like violent solutions to problems. And I prefer to know exactly what I’m getting into...I’m careful,” I told him. “I look out for my sisters.”
There is also the flighty, flirtatious Iulia, a Kitty of sorts. The studious, book-smart, mentally brilliant Paula (who feels like a Mary), and the youngest girl, the adorable Stela.
There are many girls; I had no trouble telling them apart. I had no trouble distinguishing them from their personality, because they feel real. The dynamics between sisters are wonderful to see; they fight, they squabble, they love one another undisputedly.
The villains are many; there are characters from the Night People from the east. They are vampires, with plans of their own. But that's not all, there are enemies who are much closer to home, like Cezar, their cousin, who is determined to destroy the forest and the magical link in between worlds, for his own personal quest of vengeance.
Yes, I’m angry. I want the truth—and when I have it, I’ll use it to destroy those who tricked me, those who played the most evil joke in the world on me. I will tear them apart, limb from limb, and then I will destroy their forest so that they can never return to haunt me. I will drive them even out of my dreams.
Nobody is relegated to the background here, detail is paid every character, no matter how insignificant. I may not love everyone in the book, but every single character was exquisitely written.
The Romance: The romance is so subtle, so sweet, so light. There is that bitter ache of first love, but it is so much more than that. Love is portrayed in so many ways in this book. We see it as Tatiana falls for her forbidden young man, one who loves her equally in return, without hope of ever being together. We see it in other ways. It is not just romance between two people who are attracted to each other, it is love between sisters, the love of a loyal friend who has become your closest ally, your staunchest defender. Then there is the angry sort of love, the controlling sort, of a young man determined to control and overwhelm that whom he cannot have.
And then there is Jena, and her romance is the sweetest, because we have seen what she has gone through in order to achieve her happy ending.
His heart and mine added a rhythm all their own. We turned and turned, and with every turning we breathed a little more quickly and held on a little more tightly, and when we came back to the place where we’d started, we stopped dancing and stood with our arms around each other, holding on as if we would never let go, not if the sky fell and the whole world came to an end.
You will never regret reading this book.