Twelve, Joan Marie Verba (FTL Publications 978-1-93688-172-7, $19.95, 146pp, hc) July 2022. Cover by GetCovers.
In Twelve, Joan Marie Verba’s first novel since 2020’s Defying the Ghosts, the fairy tale of the 12 dancing princesses is retold from the male protagonist’s perspective. I love a good fairytale retelling, although this one – written down by the Grimms for their 1812 collection – isn’t one I’ve seen reimagined very often. Such retellings sometimes focus on the original villain, or on giving the women a voice. Here, the main character is the world-weary soldier looking for peace; the women are also given more purposeful lives than in the original story, and are not treated as chattel to be distributed, which is a welcome difference from the original.
Alden has been a soldier for many years; now, he’s trying to reach a hidden kingdom where, stories say, peace reigns. When he eventually gets to that kingdom, he’s greeted by old men in a tavern who call him “the next king of the realm” – since every new man in town must be there to solve the riddle of how the 12 princesses are wearing out their shoes every night. Alden, though, isn’t interested. He’s just there for the peace and quiet. And indeed, much of the story is about Alden fitting into this small, remote, peaceful village: making friends, making some money, and meeting Philippa, with whom he quickly forms at attachment. One Sunday, he hears a story about Enchanters, an apparently non-human, magic-using race who live nearby. Many years ago, the Enchanters decided they could live harmoniously with humans – except for one of their number, who wanted to control humanity, and was therefore expelled. This story sets up the rest of the plot, since that one Enchanter is still intent on returning to the kingdom (for unknown motivations; declaring “we have the right to control humans” and then being expelled is apparently reason enough to wage generational warfare).
This is a gentle story, with little action. The pace is slow, like life in the town. There is a burst of action when the expelled Enchanter, Nevarth, is being threatening, but even then there’s little real sense of urgency. Instead, the focus is on characters, and in general they’re believable enough, within a fairytale milieu. Alden is weary and earnest. We’re not told how he came to be a soldier – being the youngest of seven brothers might account for it – and perhaps his gentleness is hard-won. Imagine the residents of your standard fictional medieval-ish European-ish town, and they’re here: innkeepers, brewers, tailors, cobblers, and so on. Perhaps the main difference from Standard Fictional Medieval-ish Town is that some of those residents are women who are running their own businesses.
I felt that Verba’s language sometimes verged on clumsy; the dialogue especially can be stilted and awkward. The story’s setting is rudimentary: Alden has been to Constantinople, but few other places are named; “Queen Elizabeth of England” is mentioned as having painted her face, and Alden has heard cannons and guns. Beyond these things, the time and place are opaque. Perhaps this is deliberate, as befits a fairy tale, but then the few references that are made feel out of place.
Finally, I have questions about how the princesses manage to have everyday lives and dance every night. Maybe magic is the solution.
Alexandra Pierce reads, writes, podcasts, cooks and knits; she’s Australian and a feminist. She was a host of the Hugo Award winning podcast Galactic Suburbia for a decade; her new podcast is all about indie bookshops and is called Paper Defiance. Alex has edited two award-winning non-fiction anthologies, Letters to Tiptree and Luminscent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler. She reviews a wide range of books at www.randomalex.net.
This review and more like it in the December 2022 issue of Locus.
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