The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

Goodreads: The Princess Curse

Summary: Twelve princesses suffer from a curse where they wake up every morning tired and with their shoes in tatters.  Reveka, the apprentice of the castle’s herbalist, thinks she can find a way to make herself invisible and break the spell, even though everyone else who has tried has disappeared or fallen fast asleep.

ReviewThe Princess Curse is a very original retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” as the character striving to unravel the curse is not a dashing young man, but rather a spunky thirteen-year-old herbalist’s apprentice.  This creative decision leads the focus of the story away from the princesses and onto Reveka, who is clever if not beautiful and fair if not always kind, and onto the prince who cast the curse in the first place.  The effect is that the story reads very much like fantasy, but not always like a fairy tale.  Reveka and Dragos, lord of the Underworld, are too complex to belong in a standard fairy tale, and their motives are often politically and rationally inspired, which is unusual for the genre.  Haskell has not simply expanded or filled in the holes of a well-loved story, but has used the main plot idea to write a book that is a story very much its own.  It will not sound familiar no matter how many retellings the reader has encountered before.

The book’s biggest strength is the imagination behind the plotline. Usually the father of the twelve dancing princesses wants the curse broken because he just loves his daughters so much.  Prince Vasile does love his daughters—but there is also the problem here that if none of them marry and produce an heir soon, the country will be invaded.  And no one will marry them because every man who has tried has disappeared or slipped into an unending sleep.  The entire kingdom has a stake in the fate of the princesses because two rival countries are pushing for war, and the country has already been ravaged by the Turks.  The reader will also discover that the lords of the Underworld have a stake in the fate of the country, too.

The characters who storm their way through this plot are also very unique.  Reveka is a fantastically strong, intelligent, and level-headed heroine—generally a great role model.  However, she can also be disagreeable, and even though this makes her realistic, it can also create a bit of distance between her and some readers.  Of course all thirteen-year-olds are not amazingly selfless, and Reveka does come to a greater understanding of how to treat and care for others by the end, but there are moments when one cannot help but be displeased by her decisions.  Many of the other characters are also a strange mix of kindness and qualities that make them disagreeable.  Reveka’s father believes she lies all the time and expresses his love for her somewhat sporadically.  Her master is a lazy monk who rarely gets up before noon.  Only one princess is truly compassionate.  The bath woman helps Reveka but is a terrible gossip.  Overall, the characters are diverse and real, and good people at the core, but they make the book a little darker than one might expect.

Because of this darkness, the audience for the book is somewhat up for question.  Reveka’s age, the story idea, and the cover art all scream “middle grade,” but other elements point to older readers.  For instance, at the start of the book Reveka reveals that ten of the princesses are illegitimate.  There is later a brief discussion of when marriages with “child brides” are generally consummated.  In a movie, these references could be interpreted as little asides to the adults who are watching with their children—but their inclusion makes little sense in a book that a child would read by herself.  It was all somewhat confusing.

The Princess Curse, then, is an enjoyable read and an imaginative retelling.  It has a strong protagonist and a great supporting cast. Though it stands alone, it leaves open some questions that could lead to a sequel I would love to read.  But I, unexpectedly and ironically, would hesitate to recommend it to a preteen.

Published: September 2011

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