Author: Merrie Haskell
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling, Young Adult
Publication Date: September 2011
Hardcover: 328 pages
Twelve princesses suffer from a puzzling—and downright silly—curse. Ridiculous though the curse may be, whoever breaks it will win a handsome reward.
Sharp-witted Reveka, an herbalist’s apprentice, has little use for princesses, with their snooty attitudes and impractical clothing. She does, however, have use for the reward money that could buy her a position as a master herbalist.
But curses don’t like to be broken, and Reveka’s efforts lead her to deeper mysteries. As she struggles to understand the curse, she meets a shadowy stranger (as charming as he is unsettling) and discovers a blighted land in desperate need of healing. Soon the irreverent apprentice is faced with a daunting choice—will she break the curse at the peril of her own soul?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: I’ve been craving some good traditional historical fantasy, as well as a solid retelling. The Princess Curse absolutely fit the bill, as it is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but from a new and unexpected perspective.
Reveka has one burning desire in her life: to become an herbalist. Not just any old “herb-mother” or village wise-woman healer type that relies on superstition without scientific background. No, Reveka yearns for her own herbary, filled with her plants, books, and the respect that comes with scribing one’s own tome of herbs and their properties. Three days after her thirteenth birthday, however, Reveka’s future as an herbalist is called into question when she is summoned to the Princess Consort’s quarters. For years, the ruler of the Sylvanian realm, Prince Vasile, has struggled to get a male heir, but the only fruit of his marriages have been daughter princesses…and something is terribly wrong with the Princesses.
Each night, the girls go to bed, only to emerge, exhausted, from their chambers with blisters on their feet and holes in their shoes. Anyone that has tried to discover the truth of the princesses nightly jaunts by attempting to stand guard over the girls ends up falling into a cursed slumber, never to awaken again. Reveka doesn’t care for the princesses or their silly curse – as Reveka so drily says, “It is a curse of shoes and naps” – but when Princess Daciana, the child bride and consort to the ruling Prince Vasile, insists that she help, with the promise of a fat dowry as her prize, Reveka finds herself enmeshed in the mystery of the holey slippers. (The dowry, of course, is not for her to marry someone but rather as funds for her future as a herbalist) As she finds a way to follow the princesses, undetected and untouched by the sleeping “curse”, Reveka discovers their secret is far more odious and terrifying than she could ever imagine. With the fate of two worlds on her young shoulders, Reveka must choose to follow her dreams and ambitions, or what she knows is right in her heart.
Well. Wow. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started The Princess Curse – but based solely on the title, the blurb, and the art for the book, I was expecting a lighthearted, frothy, middle grade-y fairy-tale-ish romp.
No, The Princess Curse is, like good ol’ Optimus would tell you, more than meets the eye. This novel is far more than just a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses myth – it’s also got historical context with Vlad the Impaler and the invading Turks, a touch of Greek mythos with the Penelope-Hades story, as well as some Beauty and the Beast/East of the Sun West of the Moon type of images and themes. Needless to say, I LOVED IT. I loved it so much. I loved the brave, competent young Reveka, I loved the monstrous Zmeu prince, I loved the depth of history, of practical magic, of dreams and ambition tempered by love, and the hope for better things to come. But you know what I loved most of all? That this isn’t a “they get married and everything is magically better/they instantly fall in love HAPPY EVER AFTER Y’ALL!” type of story. There are things that prevent this book from falling into that romantic trap – namely the age of the heroine.
That’s not to say that thirteen year old Reveka isn’t mature as a heroine – because she is refreshingly strong-willed (without being abrasive), intelligent (without being snooty or condescending), and compassionate when it counts. Initially I did find the age offputting because she sounds more mature than a thirteen year old might, and I was uncomfortable with the concept of child-brides, but that’s just me projecting my silly modern sensibilities on a book that is rooted as much in history as it is in fantasy. Ultimately, the thirteen year old heroine makes sense – and I’m glad Ms. Haskell stuck with that age.
Beyond the heroine, the other standout feature of The Princess Curse is the skill with which Ms. Haskell weaves together familiar fairy tales and myths, creating a book that is wholly her own. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is not one of my favorite fairy tales, though when done well it can be phenomenal (Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing remains my favorite retelling), but Beauty and the Beast? The heartbreaking despair of the Persephone-Hades (and Demeter) myth? Even a touch of Sleeping Beauty? I love them all, and The Princess Curse incorporates these different elements into a wonderful, unique melange, all on a Romanian mythological palate. There are tales of the horrible Zmeu and the handsome Frumos, just as there is the encompassing backdrop of a Sylvania threatened by Vlad Tepes and the Turks’ aggressive expansion, simultaneous with Hungary backing, yet threatening, Sylvania’s independence.1
Finally, I’d be remiss in this review if I did not mention how much I loved the relationship between Reveka and her father – rocky at first, but so very devoted when it counts. And, unexpectedly, The Princess Curse is also not without humor. Though the overall story is somber and there are serious issues at stake, Reveka is practical and keenly observant to a fault, and this allows for some much appreciated levity throughout the book.
The Princess Curse is a wonderful, memorable tale and one that will absolutely be making my list of Notable Reads of 2011. And though I believe it’s a standalone novel, I would give anything to read more about Reveka as she grows up.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Using HarperCollins’s Browse Inside widget below, you can read the first 70 pages of the book! If you cannot access the widget, you can read the excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: The Twelve Dancing Princesses seem to be a popular retelling choice – from Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball to Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing (my aforementioned favorite retelling, though The Princess Curse is a close second)!
Also out this year is Entwined by Heather Dixon (also from HarperCollins), which I have on my TBR and which I will get to soon, just to see how it stacks up. Anyone else have any favorite Twelve Princesses retellings?
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Fox & Phoenix by Beth Bernobich
Buy the Book:
- I love that there is also an Author’s Note at the end of the book, in which Ms. Haskell explains that Sylvania is a fictitious region of Romania that she created for the purposes of this story. Ms. Haskell writes, “The regions of Romania have a clear and fixed history that seemed wrong to tamper with. I needed a place that could be cursed by a zmeu, menaced by Hungary, and resigned to twelve unmarriageable princesses. Since Transylvania means ‘the land beyond the forest,’ I thought, ‘Then let’s make the land where the forest starts,’ and thus Sylvania was born.” ↩