Friday, November 12, 2010

Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier

Published in 2007 by Pan Macmillan

Gorgeous, gorgeous book. Really does the fairytale re-telling genre justice. I used to read a lot of adult fantasy in my early and mid-teens and then stopped once I got into YA and children’s books. Wildwood Dancing makes me want to get into it again – it is sumptuous, vividly told and seamlessly incorporates many elements of folklore and fantasy fiction.

Jena, her five sisters and faithful companion, the frog she calls Gogu, live in a crumbling castle on the fringe of a wildwood in Transylvania. They have shared a secret for nine years – the existence of a hidden portal that allows them to travel through the Wildwood to the other Kingdom, on the evening of a full moon. Their father falls ill and must escape the winter cold to regain his health. When he leaves, the girls’ cousin Cezar gradually assumes overbearing control and creates trouble for them. Their secret is threatened and Jena must embark on a dark and perilous quest into the fantastic realms to save the lives of those she loves.

The world of Wildwood Dancing is sophisticated and intriguing. Dwelling among all these fantastic occurrences is the harsh light of reality and a story of a young girl forced to grow up and assume responsibility. This grounding in realism makes the existence of another world both tangible and engaging. Marillier writes with such belief in her story, and with such story-telling prowess, that Wildwood Dancing is one of those books that can be enjoyed by all ages.

The Transylvanian backdrop is stunning, each location infused with a pearly magic, swathed with the silent, watching presence of the moon and the forest and the frost. There is a seamless blend of Romanian vampire lore, Celtic faerie tradition and classic fairytales. The supporting characters, generally fay creatures, are well-drawn. The villain of the story is a complex and layered character, easy to loathe but easier to understand.

Wildwood Dancing is also about love and longing, and Marillier generally does it well. Tati and Sorrow’s relationship has a lovely ethereal quality. Jena’s own love story is played out skillfully; there is a great sense that her and her partner are true soul mates. The fact that we are introduced to him as a frog only makes it more agreeable.  My only qualm was the final scene, the ‘happy ending’. I think this was a teeny bit overwrought and it made me go ‘ick’, but as this is a fairytale I guess I can make allowances.

This is a beautiful book, a sprawling, shimmering work of art. I could find a few things to nitpick – a few moments of twee sentimentality, a bit of draggy prose, some frustration with Jena – but as a whole it is utterly charming. Love the cover as well.

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