Saturday, November 26, 2011

Entwined by Heather Dixon

As I've said on before, I'm a huge fan of fairytale retells and reinterpretations.  So when Entwined arrived as part of the September book order, I was immediately intrigued.  The tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses has not been adapted very often; Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball is the only one that stands out immediately.

From the very beginning, Entwined did not feel like many other fairytale retellings I've read; in that way it reminded me of A Curse Dark As Gold.  Although their settings and styles are quite different, both take the skeleton of the original tale and transport it to a very rich and distinct new setting utilizing pieces and aspects of actual (mostly West European) history.  The world Heather Dixon creates is a distinctly foreign and magic-infused world with the feel of late 19th and early 20th century Britain.  In Eathesbury, there are formal balls, a vaguely parliamentary monarchy,  street lamps, distinct social traditions, and bits of leftover magic haunting the palace (such as a rather grumpy silver tea set).

Azalea is the eldest of the eleven princesses of Eathesbury.  She adores her mother, affectionately protects and manages her sisters (even when they're driving her crazy), and absolutely loves to dance.  But when her mother dies giving birth to the twelfth princess, the color seems to drain out of Azalea's world.  As she tries to control her own grief, Azalea works to hold her family together, caring for her sisters and struggling with the strained relationship with their distant father, the King--whose insistance on following all formal mourning traditions bars the princesses from their one source of emotional release and connection with the late mother: dancing.  So when the girls discover a passageway leading down into a secret chamber inside the palace's walls, they enter it eagerly.  Inside Azalea and her sisters meet the strange enchanted man who calls himself the Keeper who offers them a safe place to dance their grief away.  But, the Keeper's intentions are far from pure.  As his web of dark power pulls tighter,  even Azalea's very nimble feet and unwavering determination might not be enough dance her family away from the Keeper's trap.

Entwined is a lovely debut, by turns whimsical, action-packed, and romantic.  Azalea is a greatly appealing protagonist, strong and determined as well as vulnerable and authentic.  She is devoted to her family and very aware of her political and personal responsibilities as the oldest princess.  Also, Dixon (smartly) does not attempt to fully develop each of the twelve princesses equally; Azalea and the second and third oldest sisters are the most three-dimensional of the girls while the others are given a few, less fully explored identifiable characteristics.  Their interactions as a family ring very true and the shifting relationship the princesses have with their distant father develops organically.  The romances are lovely and the Keeper is a delightfully sinister antagonist.  The magical elements work well in a elegant and whimsical fantasy world.  However, Entwined (like all good fantasy novels) is successful because it remains grounded in more universal human emotions and experiences, such as the confusion and pain of grief, the tight bonds between siblings, and the complex relationships between children and parents.

Overall, Heather Dixon's Entwined is a great debut novel and a lovely, enjoyable fantasy story that will appeal to a wide age range.  Definitely pass it off to fans of fairytale retells and romantic fantasy novels!

5/5 STARS

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Life and Love After Loss: The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Love triangles of some kind seem to be popping up more and more frequently in young adult fiction--a trend that could be connected to the extreme popularity of a certain series featuring a vampire and a werewolf battling for a single human's love.  In general, I am a bit sick of love triangles; they aren't my favorite romantic cliche.  On the very surface, The Sky is Everywhere had the potential to be yet another love triangle story--albeit one touching on some larger issues of grief and recovery from loss.  Under the title on the front cover of the paperback edition, it reads: "One boy helps her remember.  The other lets her forget."  Delightfully, Jandy Nelson's debut novel is much more than this catchy tagline.

One month ago, Lennie's brilliant sister Bailey died unexpectedly while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.  Bookish clarinetist Lennie feels completely unmoored and lost.  Although their mother left when Lennie and Bailey were extremely young, they've never truly felt alone or abandoned; raised by their garden guru and artist grandmother and sweet marriage addict Uncle Big, the Walker sisters have never lacked for family.  But now there's only one Walker sister and after a lifetime of being the companion pony to Bailey's racehorse, Lennie has no idea of who she is or what she wants without Bailey.  She's disconnected from her best friend Sarah and from her family but she feels drawn strongly to two very different boys: Bailey's quiet and heartbroken boyfriend Toby and quirky new boy and musical genius Joe.

Lennie is an endearing and sympathetic character; her grief for Bailey is intense and complex, fluctuating between confusion, anger, and despair.  Her attraction to and contrasting interactions with Toby and Joe feel equally believable; Nelson has created a genuine picture of a young woman's confusing and intense emotional and sexual development, demonstrating that the definitions of love, lust, and romance can be much more blurry than we sometimes assume and that human connection can be unexpected and diverse.  Additionally, while the romance plays a large role in the plot, The Sky is Everywhere remains very much about Lennie's larger story as she works to develop a new understanding of her identity and place in the world separate from Bailey.  Also, this novel has a lovely sense of place; the gentle and lyrical atmosphere of the small hippie-rich town of Clover, CA permeates Lennie's story.

Nelson might be trying to pack a bit too much into a single novel (Lennie's romance confusions, Bailey's secrets, the mystery of their mother's disappearance, etc.) and her writing might be a bit too metaphor-rich for some readers.  However, The Sky is Everywhere remains a stand-out debut novel packing a great emotional punch.

4.5/5 STARS