The Thirteenth Princess, by Diane Zahler (Harper Collins 2010, middle grade, 256 pp)
What if, instead of only twelve princesses, there was a thirteenth sister born to a king who desperately wanted a son? What if her mother, adored by the king, died giving birth to her?
In Zahler's revisiting of the familiar tale of the Twelve Dancing Princess, Zeta is that child, pushed from the royal family into life below stairs with the servants. Brought up by the cook, Zeta watches her royal sisters from afar...until she finds out that she is a princess too, and a clandestine affection grows between the 13 of them.
But then the twelve princesses fall mysteriously ill, until they are too weak to leave their beds. They never leave their room, and yet their slippers are worn to shreds each morning. Zeta is the only sister unaffected, and it's up to her, with the help of a stable boy, a soldier, and a friendly witch, to foil the dark magic that is draining her sisters' lives away...
This is a lively retelling of the familiar story that sticks closely to the original while making it very middle-grade girl friendly. Zeta is an engaging young scullery maid/princess, and her strange situation makes for fun reading. The enchantment doesn't kick in until about half-way through the story, giving the reader time to get to know her before she must follow her sisters on the path to their midnight revels. (Separating Zeta from her sisters also lets the author avoid, to some extent, the problem of having so many girls to characterize--we mostly see the princesses from a distance).
I enjoyed Zahler's story telling--she has brought an old chestnut of a story to fresh and vigorous life. Her take on it is mysterious enough to be interesting, without being so dark as to disturb younger readers. I'd strongly recommend this one to young readers who loved Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, or Fortune's Folly, by Deva Fagan -- all fairy-talish stories of resourceful girls beating the odds (both magic-wise and society-wise) against them.
For the older reader (ie, me), there's some disbelief to suspend. At the specific level, I wondered, for instance, how Zeta, let alone her stable boy friend, learned to read and write. At a more general level, the relationship between Zeta and her father the king was on the one hand complex and interesting, and, on the other, not entirely convincing.
That aside, this is a book that I think will be loved by fourth and fifth grade girls (who are, after all, the target audience)--there's mystery, magic, a bit of romance, and quite a few beautiful dresses...
Here are some other reviews (all glowing) at Rebecca's Book Blog, Bloody Bad, and A Sea of Pages.
(disclosure: I received an ARC from the publisher)