Recommended by: Brittany, in the Comments on my review of Princess of the Midnight Ball
Back in that review of Princess of the Midnight Ball, I both confessed my love of fairy tale re-tellings, and complained that that particular story didn't feel like it deviated enough to be considered a true re-telling. My good friend Brittany chimed in that when she asked Cindy Dobrez, our middle school librarian, about it, Cindy recommended this pair of books (since Lynn Rutan, our other librarian back in the day and Cindy's co-reviewer at Bookends, had run off with Princess of the Midnight Ball so she could review it for the blog!)
So I went into this pair of books with high expectations - Brittany's known me almost as long as Cindy and Lynn have, so she has a pretty good grasp of what I like to read! And while I was underwhelmed by Princess of the Midnight Ball, I was absolutely enthralled by Wildwood Dancing and Cybele's Secret.
Wildwood Dancing follows five sisters living in a castle in Transylvania (awesome setting). Their mother died giving birth to the youngest daughter (as so often happens in these tales) and their father is now gravely ill. So he leaves his merchant trading business in the capable hands of his second-oldest daughter, Jena, and heads off to warmer climates for the winter.
Unknown to anyone else, Jena and her sisters spend the evening of every full moon in the Other World - a magical land filled with various fair-folk of legend. Here's where the twelve dancing princesses connection comes in, though there are only five girls and they aren't princesses. And they aren't cursed, either - at least, not with dancing. They choose to spend the evening of every full moon there, dancing or debating or playing games.
But their tranquil nights in the Other World are soon threatened. Jena's cousin, Cezar, doesn't think a girl like Jena is capable of handling her father's affairs, and works bit by bit to make Jena and her sisters completely dependent on him while their father is away.
Two more stories get thrown into the mix here as well: the frog prince subplot is absolutely wonderful and fun, and then there are the night people that appear in the Other World, and cause a bit of trouble not only in the Other World, but in Jena's valley as well. The night people, or at least the rumors that surround them, strongly resemble vampires. Which of course makes perfect sense given the Transylvania setting.
I absolutely loved Jena: she's super-capable of taking care of herself and her sisters. She fights tooth and nail when someone tries to tell her she can't do something because she's a girl, or she needs to get rid of her best friend in the world, the frog Gogu. The only regret I had was she never punched Cezar in the nose. Man that guy was obnoxious.
Luckily he never makes an appearance in Cybele's Secret, the sequel set a few years later and following one of Jena's younger sisters, Paula, this time going with her father on a merchant trading mission in Turkey. This story doesn't seem to follow any particular established fairy tale, choosing instead to focus mostly on historical treatment of women in social and religious circles. Paula goes from doing pretty much whatever she wants in rural Romania, to the highly religious city Istanbul where she must follow a strict code of conduct, including how she dresses and who she travels with, or risk her life (or at least ruining her father's business plans).
While in the first book Jena was a competent merchant, in this one we see Paula the scholarly genius, combining her book smarts with her knowledge of the Other World to help her father secure a business deal to acquire "Cybele's Gift," an ancient artifact left over from a pagan religion - one that might just be re-emerging in Istanbul. Helping Paula to retrieve the artifact is her loyal bodyguard, Stoyan, and the dashing, perhaps untrustworthy, pirate, Duarte da Costa Aguiar. Along the way some fairy tale tropes are called up, like an epic quest with complicated rules, but nothing as specific as was in the first book.
I loved getting to know Paula as a character for about three quarters of the book - for the last quarter or so the narrative gets so bogged down in romantic tension I kind of wanted to gag. I'm not a big fan of romance stories, especially when it seems like the romance is getting in the way of an epic adventure or (even worse) watering down a strong character who can do nothing without her True Love in her life. Blech. There was romance in Wildwood Dancing, but mostly between Tati, Jena's older sister, and her suitor, so it never got in the way of Jena's story. Here Paula's romantic desires overshadow everything else at various points, which had me flipping pages anxiously to get back to the adventure parts of the story.