Wildwood Dancing: Re-visit Grimm with Juliet Marillier

h1 March 1st, 2007 by jules

Wildwood Dancing
by Juliet Marillier
Alfred A. Knopf; January 2007
My source: review copy

First things first — just look at that cover. Yes, I made that image big for a reason. Beautiful cover art by Kinuko Y. Craft. Must take a moment to ooh and aah over it, as we don’t see a lot of detailed covers like this anymore. If you like, take a moment to visit Craft’s site. She, apparently, is the illustrator for most of Patricia A. McKillip’s books. The young lady pictured is Jena, but we’ll get to her in a moment.

Now, onward then. As VOYA points out, teens have been a huge part of the fan base for those titles of Juliet Marillier’s that have been marketed as “adult”; her first book, Daughter of the Forest (2000), was an Alex Award winner. This is Marillier’s first novel marketed explicity as “YA.” It was first published in Australia in July of 2006, and it won the 2006 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Marillier did her homework for this novel, set in Romania, and travelled to Transylvania, which she describes in an Author’s Note: “I had a rich and unforgettable taste of life on the Transylvanian plateau, surrounded by some of the grandest mountains and wildest forest in the world” (photos can be seen here at her site where the author states that viewing those pictures can give the reader a good idea of the world she takes us to in the novel).

What drew me to this novel was the mere mention that it was laced with fairy tale elements. Indeed, Marillier gives a respectful nod to The Brothers Grimm’s The Frog Prince and The Twelve Dancing Princesses (I even caught some references to their Little Snow White towards the novel’s close). And what a twist Marillier provides — The Frog Prince provides one of only a few of The Brothers Grimm’s heroines (the princess), as Jack Zipes points out in 1997’s Happily Ever After; however, the tale reinforces the notion of an obedient, subservient, self-sacrificing wife. Oh, snap snap! says Marillier (well, she would if she were, uh, into urban slang, I suppose). Instead, she brings us the clever, strong, and determined Jena.

Jena, who is 16 years old; her older sister, Tatiana; and her younger sisters Iulia, Paula, and Stela live at the estate of Piscul Dracului in Transylvania. Suddenly, their father — a widower — departs to Constanta, as he has taken ill and must rest elsewhere (specifically, where it’s not so bone-chillingly cold). Thought Tatiana is the eldest, responsible Jena takes over the care of the estate as well as her father’s business. With Jena at all times, nestled beneath her clothing or riding on her shoulder, is her beloved and quite unusual pet frog, Gogu, whose mind she can pretty much read. And we, as the readers, are privy to his thoughts and comments to Jena as well.

What Jena’s father (and everyone else at Piscul Dracului) doesn’t know is that every month at Full Moon, the sisters pass through a portal to the Other Kingdom — to a dancing glade in the Wildwood — where the five sisters dance with dwarves, fairies, and other creatures of the forest. Dancing Glade is ruled by Draguta, “the witch of the wood.” There the sisters dance until morning and then make their exhausted but ecstatic way back to their home, all the time not whispering a word about their adventures to a soul.

Unfortunately, their cavalier and tyrannical cousin, Cezar, interferes with Jena’s attempt to run her father’s merchant business and the estate while he’s away; worse yet, he has a deep-seated hatred for the fairy folk of the Other Kingdom, which he is sure exists. He wishes to annihilate the forest in an attempt to rid that part of the country of its fairy folk. Eventually, he suspects the five sisters have knowledge of the Wildwood and begins to grill them about such. To complicate matters, Tatiana falls deeply in love with a young man she meets in the Other Kingdom, whom Jena fears is one of the menacing Night People (Marillier wisely disposes of the vampire stereotype). Jena tries desperately to keep control in her father’s absence, but everything seems to be turning into chaos right in front of her very eyes. And it is her ability to keep a tight rein on things and keep her head about her that makes Jena proud (“Sometimes you’re so sensible, you make me angry,” Tatiana tells her).

There is much to like here. To begin with, Marillier is a fine storyteller, and this is some solid writing. Both settings — the Romanian estate of Piscul Dracului as well as the enchanted fantasy world of the Other Kingdom — are fully realized with engrossing detail; Marillier has so vividly realized the novel’s sense of place. And in case it’s not already clear, Marillier specializes here in the ethereal place, the atmospheric, even the romantic. The five sisters are extremely likable and complicated, and collectively have an alluring charm. No cliché, typecast fairy or folk tale princesses here; Marillier gives us three living, breathing, realistic young women. Jena, in particular, can with no doubt be added to the list of the strong, determined, ballsy heroines of YA lit (readergirlz, take note). There are also some touches here and there of a bit of subtle humor in the book, which serve as a welcome counter-balance to the necessary moments of anguish and angst, especially during scenes with the power-hungry Cezar, who excels at misogyny (and who stops just short of being a one-note character; Marilllier lets us in and garners a bit of sympathy for him as well. Sometimes you actually feel sorry for the poor bastard). Best of all, the story has a pulsing, pumping, compelling heart; Jena goes about it in a circuitous, hard way (don’t we all), but she learns about faith, trust, and love when it’s all said and done.

I was left with a few big questions at the novel’s close, which I won’t share here so as to not spew forth spoilers (but, for those who have read this novel, let me say safely that my questions regard Jena’s father, Cezar, and even Cezar’s father). However, Marillier’s site states that the “second book in this series, Cybele’s Secret, will be published in Australia in 2007.” Perhaps my lingering questions will be answered then and I can hope that those questions don’t represent holes in Marillier’s writing.

I love how at Marillier’s site one reviewer (Lucy Sussex from The West Australian) states: “Teenage Goth girls should love {this book}.” That pretty much nails it, but even if you’re not a black-clad, ashen-faced, Bauhaus-listenin’, hormonal member of gothdom, you might enjoy what is, for all intents and purposes, a romantic fantasy. I’m not a big fantasy reader myself, but Marillier and her love for rich, absorbing detail and her ability to place me so firmly into the magical world of Jena and her sisters just might talk me into it.

5 comments to “Wildwood Dancing: Re-visit Grimm with Juliet Marillier”

  1. Note taken! Readergirlz will put this at the top of our must-read list.

  2. I love that you are using readergirlz within side notes. YES!

    I tracked down a copy of Hello Willow. The story (sentiment and intention) was better than the art.

  3. I recommended this to my daughter for my 14 year old wannabeagothgirl granddaughter – which may work or may not. However, I have ordered it for myself, and I am anything but goth oriented! I did, though, cut my fairy-tale eye-teeth on the original Grimm and the “various colors of the rainbow” Fairy books by Andrew Lang.

    Does anyone besides me remember the fact that the whole of the “real” Scheherezade cycle was included in one of Lang’s “color” books? Which I read in 4th grade (mid-50s, that was….) and we worry about what kids read today…. (of course, there are many people in this world who would no doubt NOT consider me “normal”, and blame it on reading original Grimm et al…. not to mention CRPGs!)

  4. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive …Mar 1, 2007 … And what a twist Marillier provides — The Frog Prince provides one of only a few of The Brothers Grimm’s heroines (the princess), as Jack … […]

  5. Does anyone besides me remember the fact that the whole of the “real” Scheherezade cycle was included in one of Lang’s “color” books?

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