This novel for teens and adults is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”. In the original tale, the king’s twelve daughters wear out their dancing slippers every night. No-one can figure out where they go and the girls themselves can’t say. The king offers the usual reward (a daughter) to any man who solve the mystery. A soldier, who is given a cloak of invisibility by a mysterious woman, is the one who successfully breaks the enchantment on the princesses, freeing them from the underworld in which they are forced to dance. He chooses to marry the eldest daughter and they live happily ever after. Robin McKinley wrote a short story based on this, in which the mysterious woman is hinted, ever so subtly, to be the eldest princess herself. George’s version is quite different from McKinley’s, which is one of the pleasures of reading re-imagined fairy tales. Every novelist finds something different in the story as they bring it to life.
The heroes of George’s version are Galen, a veteran of the kingdom of Westfalin’s twelve-year war, and Rose, the eldest of the twelve princesses. The princesses are under an enchantment due to a reckless bargain their mother entered into, one which cost the queen her life. Now her daughters must dance at night for the King Under Stone; the energy of their young lives strengthens him, and in the end, they will be bound Under Stone themselves as brides for his sons if they cannot find a way to break the curse. George develops the characters of Galen and Rose well and creates a plausible fairy-tale Europe with enough political and religious background to give the story’s setting some depth. Her depiction of the glittering but sterile world to which the princesses are bound by the curse is true in detail to the fairy tale, yet is woven through with details connecting it to her own version of the story: the silver forest that has grown from the queen’s lost crucifix, the silver twigs of which provide Galen with tools to use against the King Under Stone.
Rose is not a cipher in the story, a nameless princess who dances and becomes the hero’s prize, but neither is she as active a heroine as McKinley has given us in her earlier fairy-tale retellings such as Beauty, Deerskin, or the short stories in The Door in the Hedge (which includes “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”). Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball is, however, a very enjoyable story, a beautiful romance with a pair of young lovers you can care about, even if you’re left wishing Rose had done just a little more to try to break the curse herself.
George has also written other fairy-tale reimaginings: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is inspired by “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, and Princess of the Glass Slipper is, of course, “Cinderella”, set in the same world as The Princess of the Midnight Ball.