Book Review: Wildwood Dancing

Wildwood Dancing
by Juliet Marillier

Jena and her four sisters have a secret: every month at the full moon they travel to the Other Kingdom through a secret passage in their room. There, they spend the evening dancing and socializing with the various Folk of the Other Kingdom. It’s a welcome release, but Jena knows that the Other Kingdom carries its own dangers, too. The girls keep themselves safe with a strict set of rules, and Jena is always on her guard.

Although the girls live in a world where women have little power, their father is unusual in his attitudes and treats the girls with respect and equality. Jena helps him keep the books for the business, and her sister Paula studies with the village priest. But when Father becomes ill, things are about to change for Jena and her sisters. Father must spend the winter in a warmer climate or risk death, and he leaves the girls, and particularly Jena, in charge of the home and business. But Jena finds herself in conflict with her cousin Cezar, who lives nearby. Cezar doesn’t think that women should run a business or study intellectual pursuits, and he gradually begins to take charge of their affairs. Without Father to stand up to Cezar, the girls have no recourse.

Cezar blames the Folk of the Other Kingdom for his brother’s death in the forest when they were children, and he is determined to destroy the forest and though it, the Other Kingdom. Meanwhile, Jena’s older sister Tati is falling in love with one of the Night People, and Jena doesn’t trust him. Jena is caught in the middle as she tries to save both Tati and the Other Kingdom and keep the girls’ secret safe.

Wildwood Dancing got off to a slow start, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to read it. But by the time I was a couple of chapters into it, I was hooked and pretty much read the rest of it straight through. Although it’s based on the story of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Wildwood Dancing is no fairy tale: it’s a rich, complex story which explores themes of power, perception and forgiveness. Jena is a fascinating character with a complex personality. Although she is intelligent and strong-willed, she also makes mistakes, and those mistakes could have dangerous consequences. I wanted to slap her throughout most of the book, because I figured something out early on that it took her most of the book to find out. Cezar is also an interesting study in conflicts. Although you grow to detest him as the story progresses, you also feel sympathy for him. The other girls are less well developed and tend towards archetypes: the brainy one, the dreamy one, etc.

The book draws on Transylvanian folklore as well as some well-known fairy tales, and Marillier attempts to portray the Night People more in line with the traditional folklore rather than the modern conception of vampires. The book also touches on Transylvanian history and culture.

Wildwood Dancing is a beautifully written, exciting book that will appeal to teens who like exotic worlds, strong heroines, and a touch of romance.