Zahler treats us to a retelling of the classic fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, by adding an intrepid and plucky younger sister for them. In a tiny kingdom, a jealous and suspicious king has outright banned magic, hoping to avoid the sorts of curses that other royal families are frequently subjected to. I could barely keep the girls straight in my head - they have no real personality. Aurelia, Alanna, Ariadne, Althea, Adena, Asenka, Amina, Alima, Akila, Allegra, Asmita, Anisa. They are all pale blonde slips of girls. The king craves sons, and basically kills his wife by continually putting her in labor. Angry, he sends his 13th daughter, Zita to live in the kitchens.
Zita is a hearty, ruddy redhead, like her father. Unlike the belligerent king, she has a cheerful and pragmatic nature. I was surprised that Zita never displayed any bitterness about her shabby treatment. Having grown up in the kitchens and raised by the cook, Zita is used to hard work and has no idea of her history. At age twelve, she's excited to learn that she's a princess too, and though worn out from her kitchen work, still manages to sneak visits to her sisters. She looks up to her dad, even though he's been a jerk to her whole life.
The story pleasantly reminded me of George MacDonald's A Light Princess or Frances Hodges Burnett's The Secret Garden, with it's classic, timeless feel. One minor quibble: I felt like the cover is misleading. The gorgeous princess on the cover is mostly a scullery maid the whole book through.
When the sisters become ill, Zita is the only one who sees something sinister going on and makes an effort to discover who or what is responsible for their condition. Of course, they are under an enchantment which forces them to dance nightly in a magical ballroom of the sub-basements of the castle. Part of the enchantment is an inability to speak of it to anyone.
I was a little disappointed that Zita's solution was to go find a prince to rescue her sisters, rather than resourcefully coming up with something completely on her own. I liked the disguising spell that friendly witch Babette (always ready with a pot of tea and fresh-baked goodies) teaches her. It allows Zita to blend in to her surroundings, passing as a tree or shrub, a lamppost, even as a different servant; much better than an invisibility cloak! Zita has a slight blossoming of romance with stableboy Breckin, but it is a very young, very innocent thing. They hold hands, and culminate with a kiss by the end of the book. There is a twist at the end that I didn't expect, with a villain who's been hidden in plain sight. Charming and fun, this is a wonderful middle-grade read for ages 8-12.