But then my eyes adjusted to the dimness, and I saw Pa, waiting beside the dragon-kidnaps-a-maiden tapestry, chewing at the ends of his black mustaches.
Every step across the great hall seemed to take more effort than it should have. Pa nodded to Armas and said “I’ve got her.” My heart fell at his tone, and I stared at the tapestry to hide my worry. I wasn’t going to be able to lie my way out of this, whatever it was. Armas, maybe, I could lie to. Armas, maybe, I could trick into mercy. But with Pa, there would be no chance to lie. Or even to stretch the truth into a pleasing shape.
I noticed a snagged thread on the tapestry maiden’s pale cheek. It marred her face, though she was too frightened of the dragon to be pretty—and it wasn’t just any dragon, but a fire-breathing zmeu, trying to kiss her.
Author: Merrie Haskell
Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Reveka, an herbalist, is determined to crack the curse that has the twelve Sylvanian princesses dancing their shoes to pieces every night. She hopes to earn the money to start her own herbary, but as she gets closer to the princesses’ secret, she discovers that saving them and earning her herbary may cost her life—possibly even her soul.
Notes: It’s odd that I should have read this so closely following Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing, as Romanian-set retellings of The Twelve Dancing Princesses aren't unusually common. It goes to show how differently any two writers will interpret the same basic idea, however, as the stories have little in common beyond the Romanian glossaries, the dancing girls, and the emphatic capability of the young heroines.
Haskell’s Reveka is off-the-charts independent and pragmatic; a confident herbalist, a harsh judge of character, an adept liar, and blatantly uninterested in getting a husband. Her goal in life, stated from the outset, is to join a convent in order to open her own herbary and spend all her prayer time contemplating her craft. All of this combined with the book's middle-grade packaging makes her the very last sort of character I’d have expected to wind up starring in a YA paranormal romance, which was where the book went.
Admittedly, the romance was not particularly romantic, let alone sexy—props to Merrie Haskell for keeping things tolerably clean for her younger readers—but it still came as something of a surprise.
Neither Reveka nor her love interest seemed designed to be consistently sympathetic, though I suspect they may be more so to readers who are more naturally forceful and less devout. Very few of the supporting characters can even be called good, though two or three succeed in being tolerably complex. None of the religious ones have any real idea of faith or holiness or love of God, not even the monk in Reveka’s present or the nuns in her past, and Reveka herself offers up only a token worry about her own soul. The failure to portray any of the religious as religious is a storytelling flaw; the book's ultimate reversal of darkness and light is not, but its spiritual ambiguity can be expected to turn off some religious readers.
Reveka does, however, keep up an interesting narrative. Her nicely imagined herbalist’s perspective sets her voice well above the average middle-grade or even YA narrator; Haskell clearly did her research, and she moves her tale along quickly without sacrificing worldbuilding to plot. The opening chapters are particularly well-written, and though the storyline wobbles a bit after it takes its turn, the echoes of Hades and Persephone and Beauty and the Beast are intriguing.
The book resolves enough to be bearable, but it begs for a sequel, which apparently the publisher has not yet authorized. Readers will be disappointed if it never happens. There is certainly some tale remaining to be told.
Recommendation: Read it for a very determined young heroine with a unique voice.