Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Wildwood Dancing

by Juliet Marillier


With a Transylvanian castle, some magical midnight dancing and a frog that communicates with the main character through thought, it's not as though we can't guess which way this novel is heading. But although some of its plot points are obvious, it doesn't follow that getting to them is boring. Jena and her four sisters sneak off every full moon to a kingdom of fairies, trolls and magic, to dance the night away. They've been doing this for years without anyone being the wiser.

However change comes to Piscul Dracului, their family home, when their father falls ill and leaves to spend winter in a milder climate. The older sisters, Jena and Tati, are approaching marriageable age and it may soon be time for them to hang up their dancing shoes. If their father dies the estate will pass to their cousin Cezar thanks to patriarchal inheritance rules, unless one of them marries and produces a male heir pretty quickly.

With their father out of the picture Cezar gets increasingly involved with the girls' lives, even though Jena finds him overbearing. She's keen to prove she can manage the family business and finances on her own. However Cezar has a very negative attitude to the wildwood as a result of a tragic accident in their past. He wants to cut it down and banish anything remotely eldritch, and he's prepared to recruit superstitious villagers and whip them up into a pitchfork-wielding frenzy to go and hunt down anything or anyone unusual.

Whilst Cezar is planning destruction and massacre, Tati has fallen under the spell of one of the Night People. These pasty bloodsuckers are vampires in all but name, and they're edging in on the territory of Queen Ileana, the current wildwood ruler. The sisters are very careful not to eat the food in the other realm, and they follow strict rules designed to keep them safe. But the Night People's hypnotic influence seems to cancel out the girls' caution, and even level-headed Jena finds them hard to resist.

There's a hint of Pride and Prejudice about this coming of age tale, with all its matchmaking and romance set against an old-fashioned backdrop. Of course Elizabeth Bennet never had a sarcastic frog on her shoulder commenting on her suitors, nor did she have to contend with witches, gargoyles and magic. But as for sisters, and frocks, and the struggle of the gentry to marry up and avoid destitution, those were the same. Jena's Aunt Bogdana is intent on seeing the young women well married, although they don't always appreciate her help.

The period atmosphere seems authentic, but Jena's drive to maintain her independence gives the story a modern slant. She struggles against social constraints and bullying by human and otherworldly men, and people expect her to cave in. The relationship between her and Gogu, the talking frog, is very close and achingly sweet. But even if she kisses him and he turns into a prince it won't solve her problems. She's hardly the kind of character who will let a man take care of business for her.

However Tati's attitude is considerably less admirable: the older sister refuses food and pines away because she's lovesick and she's afraid she'll never see her lover again. It's pathetic. The story would have been a lot better without this wet behaviour, which takes it from sweetness into absurdity. I can believe in witches, fairies and magic portals, but young women who go on hunger strike for some drippy bloke? Give me a break.

So Wildwood Dancing ends on a soppy, melodramatic note. It's very compelling until Tati goes all Bella Swan in response to her vampire lover. However this is really Jena's story, and at least she keeps her spine.

22nd August 2012

Book Details

Year: 2006

Categories: Books

  YA     Fantasy
  Female Protagonist  

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