This review contains spoilers.
Castle Piscul Dracului and the surrounding woods have a haunted and tragic reputation, but for Jena and her four sisters it’s their beloved home. They’ve spent their childhoods roaming the grounds and discovering the castle’s secrets — including a hidden portal only they can use.
Through this portal lies the Other Kingdom, a land of magic controlled by the fey. Every full moon the sisters cross the Bright Between and dance through the night with the creatures who have become their friends.
But when their father falls ill and must recover in warmer climates, the sisters are left with only their cousin Cezar for support…and it seems he intends to do more than be a kindly advisor.
Their trips to the Other Kingdom are no longer the fun diversions they once were. Jena’s older sister Tatiana falls in love with a dangerous fey, a village girl is found dead, and Cezar wants the woods around Piscul Dracului razed to the ground.
With the help of her sisters, a pet frog who is more than he seems, and her own wits, Jena must face dangers she could never have imagined. Failure means losing her family, her home, and the Other Kingdom she has come to love.
Things didn’t get off to a great start. Jena spends just a little too much time describing her other sisters’ beauty and lovely figures and dismissing herself as “plain” and “bushy-haired.” My (Other) Kingdom for a YA lead who doesn’t do this!
Every member of book club immediately dubbed cousin Cezar “shady AF,” a description that only got more accurate as the novel continued. Most of us had a little trouble getting into the story, but found ourselves enjoying it more the further we read.
Wildwood Dancing is based on two of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “The Frog Prince”), and is set in the mountains of Transylvania. It’s clear that author Juliet Marillier did a lot of research about the area, and was able to integrate these German tales with the folklore of Romania and the “Night People.”
While Jena was a great character, we all agreed that we would have liked to see the story from different characters’ perspectives. What conversations were Tatiana and Sorrow having just out of earshot? What demented reasoning was Cezar using to justify his behavior with the sisters? How must Costi have felt being trapped in the body of a frog for so long? Not having these perspectives doesn’t ruin the story, but it would have been nice to “narrator-hop.”
The story was well-liked all around. Only one person caught the Gogo/Costi twist before it happened, and we all agreed that the relationship between him and Jena felt the most realistic. Myself and one other person felt the book dragged a little toward the end. We’d reach what felt like a final scene, realize there was more, read what we thought was actually the final scene, then turn the page to find a new chapter.
Personally, I found the Tatiana/Sorrow story very tedious. We only see them meet a few times, and never hear their conversations. To me it seems ridiculous that Tatiana would fall so hard for an almost complete stranger that she wastes away without him. To me it felt like just another YA trope in a book that otherwise defied expectations and kept me on my toes.
The ending was satisfying enough, with Cezar gone, Costi as the returned-seemingly-from-the-grave hero, and he and Jena engaged. I thought the sequel, Cybele’s Secret, might show us the sisters’ attempts to see their beloved Tatiana in the Other Kingdom once again, but it doesn’t seem too closely related. It does, however, seem more interesting, at least to me. I’d rather read about the “smart sister” and her adventures with a lost pagan cult than about Jena’s marriage or their attempts to find Tatiana.
I likely wouldn’t have picked up Wildwood Dancing on my own, and probably won’t read the sequel unless a copy drops into my lap. But it had some great moments, great relationships, and excellent themes about love, friendship, and the importance of the choices we make.
Photo by Anelale Nájera on Unsplash