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Review: Wildwood Dancing

Review: Wildwood Dancing

Title: Wildwood Dancing
Author: Juliet Marillier
Published: 2007
Length: 407 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Jena and her four sisters have the ability to visit the “Other Kingdom,” a fae realm, every month on the night of the full moon, where they dance and rub shoulders with an assortment of non-human creatures. But with their ill father away for the winter, the sisters face sudden obstacles—such as their power-hungry, disapproving cousin Cezar—that threaten their monthly tradition, their happiness, and their futures. As the situation grows more dire by the day, Jena struggles to keep everything from changing forever.

[9/15 novels in November]

Note: This review is (relatively) spoiler-free. I have included some hidden spoilers in my Goodreads review.

I went into this novel expecting something middle-grade, sweet and light.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Juliet Merillier’s prose is elegant, lush, and lyrical, and that at least parts of her story are far more mature than most YA fantasy I’ve read before. It was a pleasant sort of surprise, to be sure.

Wildwood Dancing is a loose combination of Romanian folklore and traditional fairytales (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in particular). Being more or less unfamiliar with both the folklore and the principal fairytale being retold, I thought this rather unique combination worked well together. The elements came together almost seamlessly, thanks in large part to the beautiful writing. Ms. Merillier has a gift. Her writing was the best part of the book, no question. She brought Faerie—here the “Other Kingdom”—to brilliant and vivid life. Even the parts of the story that take place in the human world, while they did tend to drag and become tedious, were colored with a sense of magic leftover from the wonder of the Other Kingdom.

When we reached the glade, the festivities were in full swing. 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, creaky membranes. … The sound of [the] band was intoxicating to the ears, the kind of felicitous blend a village musician aspires to, and may aspire once in a lifetime. It made feet move faster, pulses race, and cheeks flush. It set hearts thumping and coaxed smiles from the most somber mouths. (17-18)

The writing was so descriptive and so far above ordinary YA fare that it did, on occasion, come across as a bit pretentious. Most notably, Merillier used the uncommon word “eldritch” at least three times, and I can only ever think of H.P. Lovecraft when I hear it.

I listened to the audiobook, so I had no trouble with the Romanian names, though I have no doubt I would have otherwise. The narrator, Kim Mai Guest, was pretty good. However, I do think her tendency to over-emote with her voice might have affected my judgment of some of the characters.

And as characters go, they were decent—nothing spectacular, no one too memorable, but they did the job. I did get the sense that most of them were pretty much stock characters, though. Jenica, or Jena, was the fifteen-year-old heroine/narrator, the “practical” one and unofficial head of the household while the girls’ father is away. She had one older sister, Tatiana (“Tati”), who was the “beautiful one” and the dreamer whose head was always in the clouds. Tati and Jena also had three younger sisters—Iulia, Paula, and Stela—none of whom I found very memorable, though Paula was the “smart one” and Stela was the obligatory cute baby sister.

Of the sisters, Tati was by far the worst. While Jena was not a particularly active heroine, Tati gets struck by a bad case of instalove in Chapter One, and it all went downhill from there. So consumed was she by thoughts of her bland love interest, Sorrow, that she completely disconnected from reality. She forgot all her responsibilities and obligations in favor of daydreaming about her “true love.” Her little sisters, looking to her for guidance and a mother figure, get neglected as a consequence. The whole storyline is absurd.

Jena was an improvement over Tati, but she also got on my nerves once in a while. For such a selfless, strong-willed and supposedly capable girl, she never did much besides worry, complain, and worry some more. She claimed that she needed to prove herself and to protect her sisters, yet she spent most of the novel either fighting with her cousin Cezar or simply reacting to the actions of others. She was all bark and no bite. I could give her the benefit of the doubt most of the time, though. She was just fifteen, and all fifteen-year-olds—even the most “practical” of them—make mistakes, especially when they are under as much pressure as poor Jena was. Tati’s stupidity only complicated matters. I appreciated how outspoken Jena could be (in an Elizabeth Bennet sort of way), and I do think she began to grow and change towards the end of the novel.

She had one other fault all too common among YA heroines, though: all the boys wanted her, even though she was plain and somewhat whiny. Draguta, the witch of the wood, asks her to consider why “with two eligible young men on one estate and a family of five girls on the next, both men fell in love with the same sister, not the lovely Tati or blossoming Iulia, but flatchested, bushy haired, opinionated Jena” (338). I’d like to know, too, because I can’t figure it out.

As for the others: Cezar, the girls’ temperamental, absurdly bigoted cousin, made for an obvious and uninteresting villain from his very first scene. Everything about him was predictable and over-the-top, in fact, from his motives for going on a crusade against the Other Kingdom to his interest in Jena. He infuriated me at times, but he also bored me. He could have been much more subtle and, as a result, far more effective as a villain.

Gogu, Jena’s froglike companion from the Other Kingdom, had a nice dry wit and frequently amused me. Like most of the fae characters, he was at least unique and entertaining, though he started to give me the creeps halfway through.

The “Night People,” much-feared vampire-like inhabitants of the Other Kingdom, were the least-developed of all, which was sort of a shame. They made an interesting addition to the fae world Merillier created for her story, but she failed to give them a clear role to play either in the Other Kingdom or in the plot as a whole.

That plot was the book’s weakest point. Perhaps this was the result of cobbling together more than one fairytale, but it was all rather jumbled: Tati’s pathetic love story, Jena’s conflict with Cezar, Cezar’s conflict with he Other Kingdom, Jena’s storylines with her sisters, with Gogu, with the Night People… I felt like there were too many plot threads, too many climaxes, too many would-be resolutions or endings that, in reality, neither resolved nor ended anything. The entire tone of the novel shifts three-fourths of the way through. It made the book feel strangely unbalanced, like it was a hundred pages too long.

Just like Cezar, a good deal of the plot was predictable. But it was also incredibly frustrating. Why were the girls so helpless, especially Jena? Did she have no power to stop Cezar, and if not, why did not a single adult—including their aunt—lift a finger to help them? Didn’t their father grow concerned, having not heard from his daughters for months, and think to send someone to check on them? After all, most of Cezar’s actions were plainly villainous, greedy, and self-serving, especially as he had no legal right to Piscu Dracului, nor was he the girls’ legal guardian.

I gave this book a four-star rating as soon as I finished it because of the beautiful writing and the magical atmosphere Juliet Merillier created, but I’ve talked myself down to three-and-a-half stars through writing this review. I enjoyed most of the book while I listened to it. Looking back, though, I think a good revision or two could have improved it significantly and smoothed out a lot of the shortcomings I’ve discussed here.

Nevertheless, it’s better than most YA fantasy, and I would recommend it.

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