A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Entwined is the story of Azelea and her sisters who, like the classic fairy tale, discover a magical passage that leads them to a forest of silver and a pavilion where they dance the nights away. But instead of the young suitor who follows after the youngest princess, this story centers around the oldest sister, starting with the circumstances that led her and her sisters to such a mysterious agreement.
The story is set in the fictional kingdom of Eathesbury, which borrows heavily from Victorian England in its politics, slang, and customs, but leaves plenty of room for anachronistic touches to balance it out. Cockney slang and modern day colloquialisms trade off, going from “little goose” and “no kidding!” in quick banter. For people who want an authentic period piece with magical elements, this book may be aggravating to read. But otherwise the prose is simple and flowing, with references thrown in for color but largely accessible to a modern day reader.
Long ago, Eathesbury was ruled by the mad High King D’Eathe, an evil tyrant who practiced black magic and was rumored to be able to steal people’s souls. The general who led the rebellion against him was made king of Eathesbury and his descendants have carried on the title for hundreds of years, bringing peace to the land while leading it away from its wilder magical history. Now, the kingdom’s greatest dilemma is handling some very precocious princesses, who often get into trouble and even have official sounding names for their mischief, such as the Great Slipper Scandal.
Unfortunately, their carefree antics are overshadowed by the severe illness that has taken hold of their mother, the Queen. And when she dies shortly after giving birth to their twelfth daughter, the girls are desolate at the loss. Then doubly hurt by the mandate of the King ordering them to lock themselves away in mourning, and taking away the mementos that remind them of her and abstaining from any activities—including dancing, the one activity that their mother loved best.
Azalea swore on her mother’s deathbed that she would take care of her sisters, so when she is faced with the oppressive constraints and her sisters’ misery, she tries to teach them dance steps to ease their grief. But when they are discovered and locked in their rooms as punishment, all seems lost until Azalea discovers a secret passageway to an enchanted pavilion where they can eat to make up for the supper they missed, and dance to replace a deeper pain with sore toes and ruined slippers.
The guardian of the pavilion, known as Mr. Keeper, offers his place as a sanctuary and the girls readily agree. There is just one problem, Azalea realizes. Things go missing while they dance. First it is items they hardly missed, tiny trinkets, spools of thread, and then more important items, like the heirloom watch Lord Bradford’s let them borrow to keep time. And when their grief lessens and the real world seems to call them back, it seems Keeper’s possessiveness may extend to the girls themselves…
Dixon’s large cast makes for a daunting read, but she does a great job of making sure the girls and assorted characters are identifiable, or at least discernable. The twelve princesses are named for flowers/plants and follow the letters of the alphabet, starting with Azalea and ending with Lily. It gives readers an easy reference for their ages relative to each other without constant reminders, as well as insight into their characters.
Azalea is the natural lead as the sixteen year-old eldest sister, who has just begun to shoulder adult responsibilities. However, the promise of balls and romantic suitors is set aside when their mother dies, and she is tasked with taking care of her eleven younger sisters. She has the natural protectiveness of an older sibling, and Dixon writes her moods swinging between a responsible caregiver and headstrong teenager with a great believability.
Bramble is the spunky troublemaker and second oldest. She usually gets the best lines, such as the time where she ran away from the King shouting: “Down with tyranny! Aristocracy! Autocracy! Monocracy! Other ocracy things! You are outnumbered, sir! Surrender!” She’s also given to strange exclamations and the one most likely to tease the others for lighthearted moments.
Clover is the soft-spoken and stunningly beautiful third daughter, who often acts as the voice of kindness when the other girls get too far out of hand. Her stutter makes her dialogue easily identifiable, and goes noticeably quiet in the midst of any sibling quarrels.
The other girls are all given moments of definition, but largely blend in for the story. It would be a difficult and completely different story if all twelve girls were given an equal amount of spotlight, but Dixon juggles them well. The story is sprinkled with various asides to the girls’ quirks, such as Goldenrod and Flora’s closeness as twins, Delphinium’s artistic streak, Kale’s word mimicry, and so on. It is neatly tied together by Azalea’s devotion to them, which is the emotional thread of the story and handled with a sincerity that keeps everything going even when the intricacies of the plot stagger.
The family’s interpersonal relationships are the strongest and best part of the novel. Dixon writes with experience when she describes the way the princesses band together under their father’s abandonment, or the way they bicker when things go wrong. She makes sure that—while not every girl is a fully realized character—there is a genuine cohesive unit of sisters. It works especially well in contrast to the rocky relationship Azalea has with the King, trying to reach him on behalf of her sisters and also for her own sake. When she does petty spiteful things, including running into the dangers of Keeper’s world, there is an emotional resonance people can sympathize with even when she’s obviously in the wrong.
But while the character dynamics skim over every part of the narrative, the one place where Entwined drags its feet is in is its pacing. The book is framed within the year of mourning, but while the first half lays groundwork of magical intrigue, the second half muddles through the secondary plots of the suitors and the King’s attempts at reconciling with the girls. Both of these have their purpose in the story, but they sacrifice the slow spun realization that Keeper may not be exactly what he seems, ruining the tension in a way the book never fully recovers from. A particularly awkward example comes when Keeper issues an ultimatum to find the magical object keeping him in the pavilion or he won’t return Lord Bradford’s watch, and the girls dither for three months before deciding to renege on the agreement. It takes out the ominous influence of Keeper on the girls, while simultaneously making them less sympathetic because either they believe him to be unjustly imprisoned or they suspect sinister motives but continue dancing in his realm anyway. By the time the novel should be tightening its plot threads into a gripping climax, the novel overextends the conflict and then limps its way into a comfortable denouement.
Although the ending doesn’t exactly live up to the promises of the start, Dixon has written a charming book that mixes Disney-like fairy tales with some darker elements. It manages to juggle a large assortment of characters and give them all an outline and coherency within the narrative, even if gliding over all the smaller parts means the story sometimes sacrifices depth and pacing for tying up loose ends. While not a perfect weaving of family, magic, duty, and love, Entwined brings the elements together in an interesting read, creating a worthy retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”If you like this, you might also like...
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"Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine, for the plucky protagonist who finds ways around her curse