13-year old Reveka is the herbalist's apprentice at a castle in a eastern European kingdom precariously poised between the Ottoman Empire and larger principalities to the north. There is a curse on the castle--the prince has successfully fathered 12 daughters (the majority of whom are illegitimate, which I though was a very clever way to make them close in age, something that makes the story more believable), but efforts to marry them off are being thwarted by dark magic. The princesses dance their slippers to rags each night (metal slippers are tried, with horribly bloody results), and any attempt to remove them for the castle results in cataclysmic disaster. Those who try to spy out what happens each night fall into an enchanted sleep, from which they never awake.
Reveka doesn't care much for the princesses, but she does find the reward offered for breaking the curse most intriguing. It would allow her to buy her way into a nunnery, and become its herbalist. So she sets to work, using her knowledge of plants, and odd scraps of magic that come her way, to find a way to follow the princesses down to another realm....
And that is the first part of the book, generally good humoured (apart from bloody feet, and a hall full of sleepers, some of whom are slipping into death, and sundry hints of dark magic), lively retelling of the 12 Dancing Princesses. But then, suddenly, the story becomes a dark and rather scary retelling of Beauty and the Beast!
Reveka finds out the secret of the princesses, and to save them, she agrees to marry the lord of the underworld. There she that the curse of the dancing princesses is only the tip of the iceberg--there are layers of dark magic that lie beneath it. If Reveka is to have any hope of happiness (and restore the balance of the worlds) she must embrace a strange and terrible fate....one that could threaten her immortal soul.
And this part got a little strange. Reveka is only 13, and a youngish thirteen at that, and she must play Beauty, as it were, to a very strange Beast indeed; their marriage strongly echoes that of Hades and Persephone. The stakes have become much, much higher, and the tone much darker. It disturbed me, somewhat, to find the thirteen year old girl I'd come to care suddenly thrust into a much more mature story--even though the marriage isn't consummated, she is married to an inhuman (literally) person much older than her with whom she has only a passing acquaintance. Sure, he's not a villain, but he is guilty of using pretty dubious tactics to achieve his goals.
I'm a fan of historical fantasy--stories that blend details appropriate to the time period (in this case, late Medieval Christianity) with fantasy elements. But in this case, I'm not sure that Haskell went deeply enough into this part of the story to make it convincing--references to Saint Hildegard, for instance, aren't quite enough to make me believe that Reveka's mindset is really that of a fifteenth-century Eastern European Christian. I think if you are going to pin your story down to such a specific place and time as this one is, you risk building up expectations for the reader that might prove tricky to meet. Especially if you then surprise the reader with a totally fantastical and non-Christian underworld....
A reviewer at Amazon was reminded of Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard and Clare Dunkle's The Hollow Kingdom; I agree, especially with regard to the later. I enjoyed it lots myself (and I do recommend it to those of you who read my blog looking for books for yourselves!) despite the fact that I couldn't help but feel I was reading two different books. I think I would have enjoyed if more if it had come right out and been a young adult book.
Despite the very young looking cover and the very "middle grade-ish" beginning, this is one I'd give to kids 11 and up--they'll be able to better appreciate the references to mythology and history, and the botanical details (I liked these lots, myself), as well as finding the second part of the book less disturbing.