Princess of the Midnight Ball is probably my favorite retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (and yes, there are a lot to choose from!). It’s the first book in a trilogy following the twelve princesses, each book focusing on a different princess.
The curse is explored in full and the princesses are sympathetic. They are caught up in machinations they had no part in, and they are for the most part powerless pawns, but this is done without making them passive. Their attempts to rescue themselves have fallen short—but even the hero (in this version, a soldier-turned-gardener named Galen) can’t do this alone. It takes cunning, courage, and knowledge on the part of the eldest princess (Rose), Galen, and a couple of ancient magicians. The curse is the result of long, patient, and intricate planning by the evil King Under Stone, a very powerful being.
The princes who fail all die of accidents due to the curse rather than being killed by the king because they failed. This makes more sense to me and also keeps the king from being an irrational monster. Also, the princesses are physically prevented from speaking about the curse—they’ve tried, but they speak only gibberish. Their silence isn’t due to selfishness or fear. They would speak up if they possibly could.
If you read all three books, it’s almost worth rereading this one to see how well it sets up the sequels. For instance, a story told in the square as Galen arrives home hints at the plot of Princess of the Silver Wood.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The princesses are unique characters (although the youngest ones frequently get grouped as “the younger set”) and they do care about each other. There’s a little bickering and teasing, but we meet them in a moment of crisis—the curse is wearing on them and it’s only getting worse. They rally around each other until they start to fray, and then they rally again.
Their mother made bad choices with good intentions. She promised to dance for King Under Stone in exchange for children (she forgot to ensure that one would be a male and therefore an heir) and victory in the war (although King Under Stone dragged it out for twelve years first). She loves her husband and her children, but she’s in over her head. She dies before the story opens, and her daughters must fulfill her bargain, dancing for King Under Stone.
The king loves his daughters. He’s frustrated by a horrible situation that he doesn’t understand and which has left him powerless. No matter what, though, he stands by his daughters, even as their silence starts to harm his kingdom. He doesn’t always make the best choices, but he does try to do what he thinks is best for them.
Galen is an orphan, but his aunt takes him in with open arms. His uncle is more suspicious, but once he accepts him, Galen is part of the family.
Galen, the son of a career solider, has been at war pretty much his whole life. The family traveled with his father. Galen’s mother and sister died of illness in the camp, and Galen’s father was shot. At thirteen, the orphaned boy took up his father’s gun and continued to fight until the war ended, years later. He’s killed people and seen many horrors. Galen is exhausted in every way—war takes a horrible toll.
Some people are cruel to the returning soldiers, but for the most part people are welcoming and respectful. There’s some reflection on what happens to a generation raised on war. The skills Galen acquired as a soldier and a spy are respected, and in fact it’s those skills, reapplied, that help him rescue the princesses.
As a soldier, Galen knows guns well. He also knows what they can do. Overall, he looks at them as a last resort, one that should be avoided if at all possible. All of the princesses have been taught to shoot, at least a bit, with Lily being the best shot. She has a gun and she uses it—twice she shoots one of the sons of King Under Stone.
The king clearly states that his daughters are not prizes to be won. And then his counselor reminds him that they are in fact pawns to be married off—how is that really any different? In the end, the king allows his oldest two daughters to marry for love, making Galen his heir.
One thing Galen loves about Rose is that she’s clever. The princesses, though pawns, have exhausted all of their resources trying to figure out on their own how to break the curse. They are not just sitting around waiting to be rescued.
Galen knits. It turns out this is a useful skill for a solider who needs socks and hats. He also likes being able to create rather than destroy. It’s this skill—and not his prowess with a gun—that helps him save the princesses. But he does endure some teasing for his endless knitting.
Galen is friends with his female cousin and he also becomes and stays friends with the married daughters of a baker who feeds him when he first comes to town. These female characters are Galen’s platonic friends. They aren’t used to create jealous tension or any of the other things minor female characters are often used for. They’re just women that Galen is friends with.
The Archbishop is the biggest non-magical villain in the book. Religion is very important to many of the characters in the book. When the Archbishop suspects the princesses of witchcraft, he declares an Interdiction—no mass, no sacraments, for anyone in the country—until the princesses come clean or the king abdicates the throne. This puts tremendous political pressure on the king and hardships on his people.
The governess is very nearly put to death for witchcraft and even the youngest princesses are put through grueling interrogations about what’s happening. The Archbishop takes control of their education—no music, no literature or history except for the lives of the saints. They are told explicitly that as women they are unworthy and weak.
At first it seems like maybe the whole Church is corrupt except for the priest who serves the king, but in the end it’s clearly the Archbishop who has overstepped his boundaries. And he mostly does it for political reasons—he enjoys wielding power and he wants to make the king step down.
Hyacinth, one of the middle princesses, is truly devout. Although most of the princesses don’t think or care much about religion and faith, it’s very important to Hyacinth. While her sisters don’t understand it, she isn’t portrayed as stupid because she’s faithful. However, she does suffer more than the others when the Archbishop declares the Interdiction and explains how they’re going against God.
A silver woods grows underground, surrounding the kingdom of King Under Stone. His sons cannot pass through it. This woods grew up where the queen dropped her silver cross. Faith and magic are somewhat intertwined.
Galen gets the invisibility cloak because he’s kind to an old woman. He also respects the old gardener and suspects that he knows more than he’s saying (which is true). Galen proves himself worthy due to his character, and so he’s given—and accepts—the help he needs to rescue the princesses.
Galen’s uncle expects respect from his nephew, and he expected it from his son as well. In his mind, respect means unquestioning obedience. However, both boys go against him, and that turns out to be the best decision. In the end, the uncle sees the error of his ways.
Rose and Galen fall in love, of course. But due to the whole common soldier and crown princess thing, they don’t acknowledge it to each other until the end. Rose’s sisters tease her about Galen, and he send flowers and knits her things (and the other girls, just to make sure he isn’t too forward). Lily was madly in love with Galen’s cousin Heinrich—also a gardener—who she thinks died in the war. She still mourns him, and as Rose falls in love, she learns to respect and understand that grief.
I really enjoyed this book. I liked the characters of Rose and Galen—both are protagonists worth my time. The world is carefully created and (as I know now) holds up through three books. All the unanswered questions from the original tale are addressed and explored.
I’d recommend it for precocious readers ages 10 and up through adults. My daughter read it when she was 11 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite the word “princess” in the title and the girl in a gorgeous embroidered gown on the cover, I think many boys would like it, too, if a fantastical adventure appeals to them.
Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
Published in 2009 by Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers
First in a trilogy (Princess of Glass, Princess of the Silver Wood)
Read my daughter’s copy