Is 12 sisters too many? Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George

It seems to me that there are two types of fairy tale novelization. On the one hand are the Re-Tellings, that stick so closely to the original that the familiarity of the story is a large part of what engages the reader. A classic example would be Robin McKinley's Beauty, her first stab at the story of Beauty and the Beast. Yes, it's fleshed out, but its plot is identical to its parent story. On the other hand are the Re-Imaginings, where the original story serves as catalyst and backbone for something wholly new, such as Elizabeth Bunce's Curse Dark as Gold, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, and Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing. Like all generalities, these two categories don't hold every fairy tale novelization neatly, but I think it's a handy little heuristic device.

Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George (Bloomsbury, 2009), is a lovely example of the former category, following the traditional version of the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses with hardly a wobble. George tells the story with verve and grace, adding enough to the background to make a satisfying context for the princesses and the soldier home from war without overwhelming them.

I would have just loved this book to pieces had I read it when I was twelve. And even my more jaded self thrilled to the bits of the story I knew--the soldier's meeting with old woman and the gift of the cloak of invisibility, the three nights he visits the underworld and the souvenirs he brings back, his weight making the boats he rides in heavy. Not to mention all the twelve sets of worn-out dancing shoes. I think the book is a success as a re-telling--it was a very pleasant read, one I'm happy to recommend-- but it doesn't have quite the power that one finds in the best re-imaginings.

Part of being a faithful re-telling is that you can't start axing characters to suite your story. It is a tricky thing, though, to take on so many sisters--only five of the twelve came alive for me. Perhaps twelve princesses is just too many.

I was reminded of a criticism that Noel Streatfeild got from John Galsworthy, regarding her second book, Parson's Nine (about the nine children of a parson). He said:

"...that she had managed something difficult to achieve in that book because all nine children came alive with the exception of the youngest--Manasses. That she must always remember that no character must come into a book unless he or she could stand on their own two feet, otherwise they were creatures of cardboard. (pp 50-51 of Beyond the Vicarage, the third book of Streatfeild's autobiography, 1972).

I myself can't remember little Manasses at all.

And now I am thinking about how many sisters a book can support. Three is easy peasy (Streatfeild's own Ballet Shoes). Four is no problem--(Little Women, The Exiles, by Hilary McKay, The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall). Five can be tricky. Even Jane Austen failed a bit with Mary, in Pride and Prejudice, making her, in my mind, too much a caricature. In Wildwood Dancing, mentioned above, the number of "princesses" is cut to five, which made the book stronger. Moving up in numbers, there's a rather obscure school story called Seven Sisters at Queen Anne's, by Evelyn Smith, that I think does rather a nice job with them all, although it's been a while since I read it. Brothers, being found more often in books for boys, I am less conversant with. The only book I read recently with lots of brothers is Zoe Marriott's Swan Kingdom, but since they turn into swans fairly early on and fly off stage, they are not a problem character-wise.

Speaking of brothers, there are twelve of those (one for each girl, of course) in Princess of the Midnight Ball. A few have names, and thus identities, but none have character, which I thought was a bit of a missed opportunity. Oh well, the last thing any of the good guys wanted was for them to come alive...but if George ever wanted to revisit this particular world (and I would like her too--it was interesting and engaging) it might be kind of neat if one of the blokes from the underworld were to take on a larger role. I want to know more about them!

small note: although this is more a YA book than not (primarily because the main characters are not children), there is nothing that will make the modest reader blush...

I have just had a nice time finding other reivews, which I had been carefully avoiding while thinking about mine: Becky's Book Reviews, Deliciously Clean Reads, Estellas Revenge, Presenting Lenore, The Magic of Ink, and Wands and Worlds.


  1. I've enjoyed your review. I agree that not all the sisters come to life in this one, but I don't know that it bothered me so much. I mean when I read the traditional story in a fairy tale book they're not really brought to life there either. It's an interesting question you've asked there...how many sisters...in a book...any book...are too many. I think five is a stretch, four can be done by a really good writer, and three and under can be managed if the writer really wants to. Some writers don't seem to care about the families of their main character.

  2. I'm wracking my brain, trying to think of stories with 5+ main narrators. I can think of two 4s. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (which worked, quite well, I think) and Bass Ackwards and Belly Up (eh, didn't work so well).

    Great discussion idea! I can't wait to see what other people add.

  3. Hmmmm. This is a question I consider often from a writing perspective, and while I love weaving in multiple storylines with lots of characters to follow and care about, I have to agree that very few people can successfully balance over seven characters without losing many of them along the way. Hm. I shall have to think about this some more.

  4. You make a good point, Becky--the plethora of princesses is part of George's choice to stay close to the story.

    I think Sisterhood works so well because it essentially four seperate stories, so it's perhaps not quite as tricky as having them all on stage at once!

  5. Good review! I agree that 12 is too many (it's only the oldest couple and the youngest couple that really get mention here). And I liked your differentiation between "retelling" and "reimagining". I've come to realize that I enjoy the latter over the former.

  6. That's a great question. The book with the largest family that was well characterised that I can think of at the moment is a Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly (aka A Northern Light). There's about five of them? It's a long time since I read it.

  7. I read A Northern Light ages ago, and my memories are dim...

    But I've thought of another example of five done well-- the five girls in All of a Kind Family.


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