Entwined is a novel length retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” (Retellings of this tale seem to be popular—I talked to author and frequent Reads 4 Tweens reviewer Jocelyn Koehler about that.) This version deals with the logistical issue of giving birth to 12 daughters by having the youngest being born right before the mother dies at the beginning of the novel. That does mean there are infants and toddlers in tow throughout, but it also lets the eldest princess, Azalea (all the princesses are named after flowers in alphabetical order—it does help the reader keep them straight), who is also our narrator, be the very YA princessy age of 17 or so.
The previous king—the High King—was an evil man, capable of magic. The castle was enchanted, much like the castle in “Beauty and the Beast.” But he used his magic for twisted things, tearing people apart and capturing their souls. He was killed in multiple gory ways before it finally took, but magic still lingers in corners of the castle.
When the novel opens, the family is in mourning and they’re not all taking it particularly well. Dancing was one thing the girls shared with their mother, and it’s one of the things they’re forbidden to do while in mourning. Dancing works as an extended metaphor in the book—it’s not only fun, but it’s comfort and order. It’s one of the major ways they cope, and it’s forbidden to them. Not so surprising, then, that when they discover an underground kingdom where they can dance without their father’s knowledge they glory in this return to something they love.
Of course, it turns out that the Keeper of the kingdom has dark secrets of his own, which eventually entwine the sisters into his evil plans to return to the kingdom above ground.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Family is central to this story. The mother is well loved and pretty much perfect. She shows up in dreams and memories, helping her daughters even from beyond the grave. She is sorely missed by everyone.
Which leads us to the problem with the father. He has always required order, and his daughters call him sir. After losing the queen, the king is not mourning well. He dresses his girls in black, forbids them to leave the castle, nor can they dance in their own home. It’s a lot to ask of 12 girls under 20. And then he leaves for war without saying goodbye. Azalea is furious and fights publicly with him, convinced that he doesn’t love them and wishes they would go away. Eventually he returns, and he seems like he’s trying but doesn’t know how to bond with his daughter. Of course, by this time they’re already under the influence of the Keeper, so much damage is already done.
Eventually the family mends. There is deep magic in Azalea calling the king “Papa” instead of “sir” and accepting him as part of the family. This bothered me on some level, though, like the fault in the fractured family was on her instead of on him. Nevertheless, a strong family together can overcome and survive the darkness.
Azalea serves as mother to her younger sisters, starting while her mother is ill for months before Lily’s birth. She continues on as a mother, which also serves her role as narrator—she’s the one who needs to act, protect, overcome, etc. But it’s a lot for a teenager to take on.
Violence (esp. targeted at women)
Normally I don’t call this out particularly, and to some extent when 12 of your main characters are female and your villain is violent, it’s not surprising that a decent amount of the violence is targeted at women. However, the Keeper has a certain possessiveness toward Azalea that moves this into a creepier realm. He holds her hands so tight that they bruise. He nearly forces a kiss on her, again leaving bruises. He seems to be holding her mother captive, but her mouth is sewn shut (it turns out to be an illusion).
One of the suitors says that women like sweet, beautiful Clover should be bullied. This isn’t even implied—it’s stated outright. Obviously, he doesn’t get to stick around long.
There’s a story about the mad High King chopping up a woman and drinking her blood.
The princesses are trapped in mirrors and start to suffer pretty tremendously while Azalea tries to save them. It’s a bit freaky.
Of course there’s a big huge secret about where the girls go every night. In this case, though, they can’t tell—like they are physically unable to talk about what’s going on, no matter how much they want to. Eventually they find other ways to help others understand what’s going on and how they can help.
Princesses of marriageable age require suitors. Azalea knows that as the oldest princess, she doesn’t have any say in her husband. In fact, because Parliament has money and the royals actually don’t, it’s Parliament that gets to choose her husband and thus the next king. She’s come to terms with this for the most part, but she and her sisters plot to make sure that Parliament chooses someone she likes. Spoiler: It works. He’s sweet and charming and thinks she’s beautiful even when she’s disheveled, and he’s a down to earth soldier type.
Teddie, one of the suitors who shows up, ends up falling in love with Bramble, who tends to be as prickly as her name. Teddie is funny and gawky and sweet. The younger girls all adore him, but Bramble is awful to him. Finally he stands up to her, and she realizes that she loves him and she gets all gushy. The sisters are surprised by this turn of events, but the reader won’t be.
Clover falls secretly in love with someone. Eventually, the sisters discover that it’s stuffy Fairweller, one of the suitors they feared would be chosen for Azalea. None of the sisters understand what she sees in him, but she’s terribly in love and he loves her back. But they have to keep it secret. Once the secret comes out, the king is furious. I know Clover is young (she’s 15) but I kind of didn’t get the outrage over these two falling in love. They seem very well suited.
Yes, there are suitors. And when the princesses are in trouble, they do ride to the rescue. However, they do it alongside the princesses and they do it according to their strengths while allowing the princesses to play to their own strengths. The king, too, comes to help save his daughters, and he lets them fight as needed.
Mild drinking of wine and so on is common. Clover, however, decides that she’s no longer going to drink any alcohol—this is a view her suitor shares, but she seems to have reached this decision on her own. Her sisters tease her about this, but her father supports her decision.
I’m fascinated by retellings of fairy tales, and this one is totally worth reading. It’s definitely best for readers who can handle a certain amount of violence and tension—my daughter will probably want to wait a couple of years before she reads this one. Although I had some issues with the girls feeling guilty about not embracing their father once he finally decided to act like he cared about them, the exploration of a family dealing with grief was compelling. The characters are varied and interesting. I would recommend it for mature and precocious 10 year olds and up—including for adults with an interest in fairy tales.
Entwined by Heather Dixon
Published in 2011 by Scholastic, Inc.
Read the paperback