This was a fun take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses story, also combining the Beauty and the Beast and the myth of Hades and Persephone. What first caught my attention was the fact the "savior" of the 12 princesses is a 13-year-old girl rather than the traditional older male soldier, although Haskell gives a nod to the original tale with Reveka's father. It's miles more fun because of it and brought to mind some of the reasons I fell in love with fantasy at a young age: there's no way a spunky, just-turned-teenager could save an entire kingdom in reality, but in the world of a fairy tale, she definitely can.
And Reveka is sheer delight as a protagonist--funny, kindhearted, brave and passionate, without the stereotypically low self-esteem that plagues female characters of YA and MG.
Who could have stolen my cap? Who would have? Who even knew about it? When I found out who'd stolen it, I'd wipe his mother's grave with my dirty socks!
Also entertainingly snarky, without beating you over the head with it:
"Oh," Mithas said. His jaw dropped open, and I thought I was going to be treated to another long view of the interior of his mouth--when he lifted his pie and took a big bite. He stared at me, chewing. Just like a cow chewing its cud.
(Not sure if it works without context, but you get the point.)
Narrative strengths? Haskell excels at foreshadowing, like the scene of a mysterious man in the forest dropping blossoms into the river. Hints are woven into the atmospheric fabric of the fairy tale, and continue to tease the reader even after the principal turning point of the story has passed
when Reveka offers to marry the zmeu.
A common thing in fairy tale retellings I look for--or at least have come to expect--is that sense of familiarity when you read a beloved story, waiting for all the events to roll out, preferably with an authorial twist. Haskell does more than that especially with the setting, playing off the different myths so that nothing is what you predict it is, yet still feels inspired by the original tales she draws upon.
Surprisingly for an MG book, this story does have the theme of child marriage. It's very tastefully done though, without harping on it too long or, conversely, trying to normalize it to the point that it's inappropriately skewed. Part of it is through acknowledgement that a normal human entering the world of myths is definitely going to result in some funky deals (who isn't a little creeped out by the idea of Persephone marrying her uncle in the old Greek myth, after all?), and part of it is through jokes. It's hard to explain without mentioning specifics, but suffice to say it was a fascinating exploration of character without (and this is what I love about fairy tales) any unneeded, extraneous attention to the nitty gritty implications of such an arrangement especially as it is, after all, made in the context of magic spells.
Overall this is a tightly plotted, well paced story that also isn't condensed to the point that it feels rushed. One quibble I have is that the 12 princesses aren't very fleshed out characters and are fairly indistinguishable aside from two or three of them. Another thing I have to complain about is that this story feels incomplete without a certain character's
full backstory. It seems like a cheat to hinge so much of his character on it, then refuse to tell us even a smidgeon. Perhaps this was the right choice though; I can do without angsty tortured backstories for once, and in all honesty, it worked out--mostly my personal nitpicking coming into play here.