Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
Publication Year: 2007
Genre: YA Fantasy
Series: Wildwood #1
Format: Audiobook on CD from Library
Narrator: Kim Mai Guest
WHY: Appallingly and against my usually vigilant rules, I accidentally read book 2 of this series (Cybele's Secret) first. I didn't love it but was intrigued by the mentions of events in book 1. Plus I generally like Juliet Marillier and fairy tale re-tellings.
From what I've read Wildwood Dancing is Juliet Marillier's first foray into young adult fiction. The setting is a feudal Transylvania and the primary source for the story is the fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, though several changes are made and pieces from other stories and region appropriate folklore are also used.
Wildwood Dancing tells the story of five sisters who are allowed access to the fairy world and its revels during every full moon. This is a secret part of their lives and brightens up their otherwise content but rather mundane lives. Their story is told from the point of view of Jena, who is the second oldest sister (15 years old) and "the responsible one". Their mother is dead and their father is very ill and must spend the winter in gentler climes than the mountains of Transylvania in order to have any chance of recovery. The five sisters are on their own for the winter, with Jena and her older sister Tati left in charge. Almost immediately problems start to arise mostly in the form of their overbearing and chauvinistic neighbor and cousin Cezar and a forbidden love that develops between Tati and one of the more enigmatic denizens of the fairy kingdom.
As I have experienced with Marillier before, she does a good job of interweaving magic into a very believable and detailed "real world". The detail and life she breathes into what is otherwise a short folk tale is nothing short of wondrous. The life of the sisters, their relationship with others and the community they are a part of all feel very down to earth and historically accurate. The magic is entwined with the setting in a very natural way that is easy to imagine. This is a real strength of the book and was probably what I enjoyed most.
While the world building is easy to admire and praise, my feelings about almost everything else in the book are more complicated. I liked the book better after I had finished and digested it a bit but I have to admit to feeling frequently frustrated by it while listening. Most of my frustration can probably be chalked up to me being a pretty unfairly curmudgeonly reader of YA so take it with a grain of salt:).
While Jena is, for the most part, a wonderful main character; opinionated, ambitious, nurturing and perhaps a bit of a control freak. She's admirable but flawed. Unfortunately, I found her (and her sisters) at times insanely frustrating. The main element of her character arc that I struggled with was how naively she acts despite her exposure to a much wider world than most. This is really a pitfall of all fairy tale re-tellings. We the readers are usually very familiar with the tropes and themes that frequently dominate fairy tales and as such can see circumstances coming from miles away, while by necessity the characters living in the story shouldn't be expected to know these things and be wiser for them. When the witch of the wood tells you to "trust your instincts", listen to her and don't assume she's fond of meaningless platitudes! Even if a character's ignorance makes sense it doesn't change the fact that their blundering makes them look stupid. Again this is likely down to me being too critical a reader. However, there are also scenarios where Jena refuses to consider the possibility of something because it seems "impossible", all while she is traveling through a magic portal in her bedroom to the land of the fairies. Seems like that would open one's mind to all possibilities? Maybe a little? The fact that she is so dismissive of things that seem no more outlandish than her monthly experiences frustrated me to no end. It came across as heavy handed storytelling, and maybe aimed at a younger audience than typical YA?
All that grumbling aside, one of the main things that frustrated me while I was reading, but then became kind of awesome upon reflection, was the character of Tati and her love for Sorrow. Tati remains an exasperating character but I realized that, purposefully or not, Marillier had set up an elegant contrast between Tati's romance and Jena's. Tati's relationship with Sorrow is straight out of a fairy tale or medieval tales of romantic love. They fall in love at first site and become instantly obsessed with each other even though they've only spent 3 nights in each others' company. Tati becomes unable to do or think about anything other than Sorrow and ceases to be able to function in normal life. She becomes selfish and completely self-absorbed. When troubles arise, she stops eating until she starves herself to the point of death putting her family and her beloved in grave danger as well. Jena, on the other hand, falls in love with her hero over many years of friendship. When troubles arise, she continues to function mostly at full capacity and takes care of all her responsibilities. She is then brave and assertive and is the one to address and fix the problems between her and her fella. It's a lovely contrast between the courtly love that has been idealized in the past and a more modern and healthier approach to relationships. Kind of cool even if I did want to shake Tati every time she was on the page!
The story is also really engrossing and I found myself looking forward to being in the car and getting more of it. I got really sucked in and it was the auditory version of a page turner. The narrator, Kim Mai Guest did a lovely job. She spoke with a slight accent/lilt to her voice that really worked for Jena. She also did a seamless and mostly non-cartoonish job voicing all the male characters and the strange denizens of the wildwood.
FINAL VERDICT: Recommended to anyone who likes richly imagined fairy tale re-tellings. I found it to be a little uneven particularly in it's portrayal of characters but I'm not sure this would be an issue for the targeted reader. 3.5 out of 5 Stars.
A smattering of other Blogs that have reviewed this book: Book Smugglers, Tripping Over Books, The Silver Petticoat Review