I came across Merrie Heskell’s The Princess Curse on LizMc2’s blog. Her description of the book as “a middle grade fantasy . . . involv[ing] a young woman discovering her power and her relationship with a powerful older man” reeled me right in!
The story’s a retake on “The 12 Dancing Princesses” fairytale. I’m not very familiar with the original tale except for the knowledge that the titular princesses are cursed to dance the night away. Thankfully, my lack of knowledge of the original had no bearing on my enjoyment of The Princess Curse which does have enough loose ends for there to be a sequel!
Reveka, the 13-year-old heroine, is exactly the kind of 13-year-old girl that I love to read about: smart (and self-aware enough to know that she’s smart), spunky, and scheming. She also has a limited store of patience, is full of confidence that borders on cockiness, and usually acts like an express train going on full steam—in other words, she reads and feels like a teenager. She dreams of having a herbary, and being “the herbalist for an entire abbey” because as she puts it:
[C]onvent was the best choice for me. A place where I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs. I didn’t really care for all the silence and singing and obedience—but my own herbary!
See what I mean about being smart and scheming? I want to be friends with this girl!
Also, the rich and varied description of all the herbs made me want to start a herb garden of my own! Immediately!
Reveka lives and works as an apprentice-herbalist at a castle with 12 princesses who mysteriously disappear each night. Attempts to investigate their whereabouts have resulted in either the said investigator disappearing completely or being put into a slumber from which nobody wakes up. There’s a prize for “breaking the curse” which our girl has her eyes on.
I love how we can see Reveka’s evolution as a character even in something as simple as her desire to break the curse: while money is the reason that Reveka becomes interested in the curse, very soon it takes on more personal tones as her co-apprentice gets caught in the curse’s tentacles.
The force at the center of the curse aka “the villain” is fleshed out and multidimensional rather than being rendered in a single color (in that it reminded me of another “evil villain” whose evilness had more to it than appeared on the surface). Same goes for Haskell’s description of the “Underworld” which is neither “dead” nor simple.
Reveka also has a complex relationship with her father. I don’t think I’ve seen father-daughter relationships as one of the main foci of a YA story and I really like that Haskell weaves this into her narrative: a pivotal point in the story hinges on Reveka’s love for her father. Of course, neither Reveka, nor her father, are very good at expressing their love for each other.
My one quibble with the book is the resolution of the curse and Reveka’s final decision which seemed a little too fatalistic, and too abrupt, and also a little troubling. I understand it’s the author’s prerogative to build her world the way she/he deems it fit but I find it troubling that [SPOILER ALERT—HIGHLIGHT TO READ FURTHER] the survival of the underworld hinged on Reveka’s acceptance of herself as a bride to Dragos. Till that point, I seriously thought that our whiz-kid would find a herb-based solution while her romance with Dragos would proceed on its own pace without there being a forcing of hands, so to say.
Despite the quibble, I think it’s a story worth reading. Here’s one of my favorite bits:
I jumped when the door banged open and Pa’s voice asked, “Have you seen Mihas? He hasn’t been around all day.”
“No, I haven’t seen your apprentice.” Brother Cosmin answered.
“Wait—where’s Reveka? Did she go off with him?”
“Go off with him?” Brother Cosmin repeated, sounding surprised.
Pa’s voice was grim. “He’s got something of a crush on her.”
I buried my face in my hands. Why did Pa know this?
“Why would you think that means she’d go off with him?” Brother Cosmin asked.
A good question, Brother Cosmin! Why would Pa think that I’d be interested in a cowherd’s stupid crush and take up a dalliance with the boy—to the point of neglecting my work and letting Mihas neglect his? . . .
“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Brother Cosmin said. “She’s about as interested in Mihas as she is in my donkey. Which is to say she might stoop to giving him mashed juniper berries for his colic, but that’s about all the notice she pays either of them.”
Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I really liked the way Haskell drew on a variety of source material, both a fairytale that’s somewhat familiar to North American readers and the Eastern European folklore. It was great for my children’s lit class, because we had presentations on 12 Dancing Princesses, Fat Frumos tales, and zmeu vs. “western” dragon lore. It all made for great discussion and I look forward to teaching it again this fall. Everything else I’m saying will be spoilery so I’ll leave some space.
I really liked the resolution when I read it and I felt like this was oddly, one of the most satisfying romances I read that year (I wasn’t reading much genre romance at the time). But later I wondered why it didn’t make me more uncomfortable. It fit the world she built and Reveka’s character, and Haskell went out of her way to point out that marriages weren’t consummated when the bride was so young, but still! She’s 13! And he’s . . . who knows? And it was quite tropey in the hints of wounded hero backstory and how she brings the Underworld back to life. I’m not sure why I just went with it. I specifically asked my students about whether it made them uncomfortable, and they said no, but I wondered if anyone who WAS uncomfortable wouldn’t have spoken up. I think this time I’ll frame it better in advance (not quite a trigger warning, but A heads up) because I think a different reader could be triggered by it and I feel bad for not thinking about that more.
Spoilers Ahoy, People! Read at your own risk!
See, that’s the thing–despite it in being in line with Reveka’s character and the world Haskell’s built (I agree with you there), I was still troubled. Part of it is the whole “savior” mantle that she’s supposed to step into. I guess what troubles me is the sort of implication that she can be that savior only through marriage to this powerful lord, her intelligence and skills notwithstanding.
I also love what you said about Eastern folklores and Western fairytales given that the name Reveka struck me as being extremely Indian-ish and Hindi-sounding!
Aw, I love the 12 Dancing Princesses story. It’s one of my favorite fairy tales, mainly because it makes so little sense, but in a way that’s perfectly usual for fairy tales. It’s weird and haunting; I love that about it.
I hear good things about Merrie Haskell! I have this and another of her books on my list at the moment & can’t wait to read them.
ooh would love to know what you think of it!!
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