Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: Wildwood Dancing (Marillier)

Juliet Marillier
407 p., includes glossary and pronunciation guide
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

Summary: Five sisters live with their ailing father in an old castle in Romania. Ten years before the start of the story, the girls located a portal into "Other Kingdom," a dangerous and beautiful parallel world full of faeries, vampires, dwarves, and trolls. For the past ten years, the girls have visited Other Kingdom once a month in order to dance in the light of the full moon with the creatures of Other Kingdom. When their father falls ill, the girls--particularly the second-oldest sister, Jena--must learn to run the castle and their father's merchant business on their own. But trouble looms ahead in the form of a childhood friend and neighbor, Cezar. When they were little, Cezar saved Jena from a witch, while his older brother Costi drowned. Haunted by his past actions, Cezar has grown up to be cold and cruel. After the girls' father must leave to seek medical attention, Cezar takes over the girls' home and pursues Jena as his future bride.

What I liked: A unique plot and setting help differentiate Wildwood Dancing from the huge number of  fairy tale romances published today. The five sisters have a strong bond, which reminds me of the sisters in Alcott's Little Women. Jena, the second-oldest sister, is a strong, intelligent female at a time when women from wealthy families were little more than party planners and socialites. The consuming, forbidden romance between eldest sister Tati and mysterious Sorrow is heartbreakingly tragic and beautiful.

What I didn't like: The Romanian character names are difficult to get used to. I wish the glossary and pronunciation guide had been placed before the story, rather than at the end. There is a short note just before the first chapter that refers to a glossary and pronunciation guide at the end. For whatever reason, I did not see the note or the glossary until after I finished the story. Why not just put it in front, where it is less likely to be missed? My efforts to pronounce and re-pronounce character names distracted me from the plot.

The close relationship between Jena and the frog is not as convincing as that of Tati and Sorrow. The frog (understandably) broods and pouts frequently, and I don't understand why smart, pretty, practical Jena even likes him at all. He is always complaining! Not only does Jena allow him to stick around, the slimy frog sleeps on her pillow and constantly rides around around on her shoulder or in her pocket. The other characters see this simply as "odd" behavior; in the real world, a teenage girl who talks and sleeps with frogs would be diagnosed with a mental disorder and given medication.

That Jena rarely questions the frog about who he really is seems incongruous with her character. Jena's insatiable thirst for knowledge defines her; nearly all her actions support that trait. A talking frog that lives with her is bound to have an interesting story; in the ten years he is with her, why has she not investigated further? It seems ten years should be plenty of time for such a bright girl to figure out who the frog really is. I saw that "twist" coming miles off. 

Language: none
Sexuality: just some mild kissing; one character gets fondled, but it is pretty mild
Violence: a man strikes a woman; farm animals have their throats slit in the night; one violent but confusing scene in the vampire portion of the world

Overall rating: While my opinion of this book is somewhat neutral, some readers are sure to like it more than I did. Other reviews are very strong for this title. Recommended for middle and high school fairy tale and fantasy readers.