Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review of The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler

Zahler, Diane. The Thirteenth Princess. Harper, 2010.

In this fantasy version of the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses, there is a 13th princess, little Zita. Her mother died shortly after her birth, causing Zita's bereaved and maddened father to condemn Zita to a life as a castle servant. Although she learns to cook and clean, everyone in the castle knows she is a princess, and eventually the 12 older princesses reclaim her as their sister - but secretly, so as not to let their father know. When the twelve princesses' health begins to fail and their shoes show odd and inexplicable signs of wear, it is clear there is an evil enchantment upon them. Zita, her stableboy friend Breckin, his soldier brother Milek, and a kindly old witch named Babette manage to break the curse and find the enemy whom the castle has unwittingly sheltered.

Most people who have enjoyed fairy tale-based fantasies by Gail Carson Levine, Donna Jo Napoli, and others will find this a pleasant and well-written diversion. Although not as funny as Levine's tales or as psychologically insightful as Napoli's, there is plenty of substance here. Zita is as plucky a heroine as one could want, yet her father's failure to love her fills her with both puzzlement and despair. The twelve princesses remain unsurprisingly interchangeable, for the most part, but their father is more complex. Elements of other fairy tales are intriguingly wound into the story, adding both freshness and depth.

The tale isn't totally satisfying. Although we learn the motive behind the enchantment of the princesses, the details aren't explained. Why the silver and diamond trees? Why the elaborate food at the nightly enchanted balls? Yes, these are part of the traditional tale - but their presence in this tale remains an enigma. The breaking of the enchantment is quite rushed, and in fact all the magical bits are a bit too easy. For example, Zita and Breckin instantly master the magical art of blending so perfectly into their surroundings as to become invisible - this comes in very handy, of course.

Still, Zita's Cinderella-like story and her able narration of her tale will keep most readers content until the happy ending. For grades 4 to 7.


  1. Ha. The invisibility thing caught my attention, too. A nice read, but not stunning.

  2. I think that "nice" is a good description. I do think that many of my readers will not be bothered by this, though.

  3. Do you know, I never thought about the lack of explanation for the lake and the trees and the ballroom...I'm so used to seeing those in versions of the story, I didn't even ask. But you're right--they're completely unexplained! This was a fun little book, but I also felt like there was a lot left undeveloped...