Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier

It would be more than redundant at this point to say that I love fairy tales. The sad truth, though, is that very few contemporary authors make that world seem close and true to life. However, once in a blue moon, when the sweeping language, the charming characters, and wondrous locations of old tales is touched with a modern sensibility, it creates the magic that only books can produce. Of all the books I’ve reviewed on there, I can count on one hand the books that cast such a spell, this next one being another.

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In medieval Transylvania, at an old castle in a wildwood village, five sisters—Tatiana (Tati), Jenica (Jena), Iulia, Paula, and Stela—have kept a magical secret for nine years. Every Full Moon, they cross through a portal in their bedroom to the Other Kingdom, where they dance and play with friendly fairies, trolls, dwarves, and other such creatures. But everything changes when their merchant father takes ill, and must leave the castle. Through a series of misfortunes, the girls find their idyllic life turned upside down, especially when the Night People—a band of vampire-esque creatures—arrive and wreak havoc on the superstitious village. Jena must keep her family together as Tati falls in love with one of the Night People, and her insecure cousin, Cezar, becomes increasingly paranoid about the wildwood…

This book is a conglomeration of fairy tales, The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Frog Prince being the biggest. Throwing a magical world in the midst of a family dynamic has always fascinated me.  How do the siblings keep the secret? How do they deal with one sister wanting to leave the world behind? What happens when one sister falls in love with someone they cannot feasibly be with? When something from one world threatens the other, how do they deal with it? There are so many interesting scenarios that can test these bonds, and watching these five sisters navigate these troubles is fun and tragic at the same time.

The historical setting also adds a level of fairytale to these proceedings. A Transylvanian village at wintertime is a setting that demands escape, but also demands attention; the girls must look after livestock, pay their servants, and straighten their father’s accounts, all while trying to keep their magic world safe from superstitious hunters and power-hungry lords.

Jena is also a very likeable narrator. She loves her sisters—her family—so much, and she tries so, so hard to be a big girl, even if it means being almost unbearably stubborn. But you cannot blame her, really; the threats to her family and the Other Kingdom are close to home, and she must stay on her toes to keep her loved ones safe.

The rest of Jena’s sisters are a little one-note, but Jena’s narration easily conveys how important they are not just to the household but to each other. Especially in the case of Tati, after she falls in love with Sorrow, one of the Night People.

It wouldn’t be a fairy tale without some romance, of course. In any other setting, and in the hands of another author, Tati wasting away from not seeing her true love would be subject to Twilight levels of harsh criticism. But because that romance is seen from an outside perspective, and because we see in bits and pieces what these two mean to each other, it is much more palatable. Jena is partial to the love scene too, but to divulge details would spoil the story. Either way, the romance is achingly beautiful.

In fact, I would say the entire book is like that. The descriptions are simple, but still powerful and vivid. The power of the story comes from the simple likability or utter despicableness of the characters, and the familiar fairytale beats, like magic spells, witches, talking animals, and unfamiliar dangers. This is the sort of book you read late under the covers, or read out loud by candlelight: maybe around a circle of enthralled children who still believe in magic and true love.

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