Friday, June 06, 2008

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

This post contains possible spoilers. Nothing too specific, but still...

I've always been a sucker for fairies and such. And I love the premise of WILDWOOD DANCING: midnight dances, an enchanted glade, a fairy queen, and a magic portal. What's not to love? Plus, the book came highly recommended, so I opened it with eager anticipation....

...but, sadly, it didn't measure up. Not because of the story. It was the characters. The main character, to be specific. Jena is set up as an unconventional, educated, independent, action-oriented girl. She kept a watchful eye on her sisters while they were in Dancing Glade, ready to whisk them away should trouble arise. She helped her father manage the family's merchant business. She attended educational sessions from the local priest, even though society frowned upon women learning things like history and mathematics. In general, she was considered the sensible sister that all the other sisters turned to when a decision needed to be made.

And yet, when it really matters, she did two things that lost her all respect in my eyes. 1) She lets Cezar walk all over her. 2) She does nothing when her sister, Tati, stops eating, which ultimately brings her to the brink of death.

Cezar's character is very clear from the first time we see him. Stubborn, selfish, sexist, and power hungry, his first serious offense is to walk off with the Jena's family's funds, stating that she's incapable of managing them. She takes offense, but does nothing to stop him. But I can excuse that since it was the first instance. Then, Cezar moves into her house, takes over her father's bedroom, and claims her father's desk as his own. She does nothing to stop him. As far as I could tell, she didn't even try. At the very least, she could have made excuses for him to be lodged in guest quarters - she lives in a castle, so there's got to be guest quarters.

Cezar's worse offense was to put Jena and her sisters under house arrest. When he does this, she threatens to go to the authorities and his mother, but Cezar says he's already got them on his side. Does she investigate for herself? No. She takes his word for it, and does not attempt to go to the village. But soon after, she sneaks out of the house and goes to the forest. So, why didn't she continue on to the village? If she's really going to defy Cezar, as she threatens time and time again, then she needs to stop at nothing until she's returning with the cavalry. Even if she never finds the cavalry and everything blows up in her face, I still would have respected her for trying. And felt sympathy for the consequences thereof.

The only way Jena ever stands up to Cezar is with words. Words are great, but they need to be backed up with action. And it's Jena's lack of action that lost her respect in my eyes. It's not until the end of the book that she actually does something to defy Cezar, but by then, for me at least, it was too late.

Tati's story bothered me in a few ways. I didn't like the implication that it's okay to die if you can't be with the one you love. That scares me on many levels... Then there's also the sisterly bond between Tati and Jena. They seemed close in the beginning, then Tati starts to pull away. Jena does nothing to stop this - never corners her sister and demands to know why Tati is so infatuated, or why she's being so ridiculous by not eating. If Jena is as sensible as she's been set up to be, I think she would have done this. Then, when Tati stops eating all together, I would think both sisterly love and the fear of losing her would push Jena to take action. I mean, if Tati is so weak she can barely sit up, then she's hardly strong enough to protest someone pouring broth down her throat. But it turns out to be another situation where Jena only uses words and not action.

If Jena's character had been stronger and truly action-oriented, I would have loved this book. And I wanted so much to love it. I really did. I'm heartbroken that I didn't.


Mary Witzl said...

The reasons you give for not liking this book make sense to me. It is frustrating to find characters who sit idly by and watch their world disintegrate without trying to fight for it. I find myself so irritated reading books like this that I'd just as soon as spare myself the trouble. Still, I love the title here. Now I'm intrigued about this book and wonder if I'll feel the same way about it -- if I ever get the chance to read it. I've got a book list now that goes on forever!

Angela Ackerman said...

I haven't read this book, but I agree with Mary, that your reasons seem clear to me.

Character inconsistency is something that has to work for a novel to be successful in my opinion. And of course this isn't easy, because there are many reasons why we do things, and often we ourselves are confused as to why we react or feel in a certain way. The problem arises when the inconsitency isn't acknowledged on some level. If the confusion is known, the inconsistent behavior becomes part of the character's arc as they struggle for understanding. But if they are simply set up in one light and act the opposite with no's disappointing.

Tabitha said...

My book list looks very much the same. There's a towering stack next to the bed. :S

This story is a great one and I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it. There are many great aspects, and I love the other sisters. I just couldn't ignore that huge elephant in the room.

Tabitha said...

"The problem arises when the inconsitency isn't acknowledged on some level."

Bingo. And that's exactly what happens in this story. I had a certain set of expectations from Jena after her character had been established, but was very disappointed when she didn't follow through. If there had been a reason, I could have forgiven it. But as it is... :(

Mary Witzl said...

I've just read Angela's comment about inconsistency and I had the same reaction. The author don't have to go on about it, but deft touches here and there to explain the inconsistency make all the difference.

I've got a few deft touches to see to now...

Tabitha said...

Deft touches. Love that phrase! :) And I totally agree. Not much was needed, but a little something would have made all the difference.

R.J. Anderson said...

What bugged me even more than the points you mentioned -- which are certainly valid ones -- is that after growing up in an area steeped in magic, and having her cousin disappear under Mysterious Circumstances, Jena never ONCE thinks to question whether her magical talking frog who appeared right around the same time her cousin disappeared might, y'know, BE her cousin? It drove me crazy that I had that aspect of the book figured out very early in the plot, but Jena never did the math.

Also, it annoyed me that Jena would so readily take the word of two manifestly untrustworthy people when it comes to whether or not she should trust the person who has always been her dearest friend. That to me seemed totally inconsistent with her character and also with her relationship with Gogu up to that point, so the angst between them seemed pointless and contrived to me.

Ultimately, I felt the same way you did -- I wanted SO MUCH to love this book and I was so disappointed that I couldn't.

Tabitha said...

Yes, you're so right at how obvious Gogu's identity was, so her revelation seemed overdone.

I also agree with the angst between them. I found it annoying, and the fact that neither could just up and say sorry?? I mean, they shared such an intimate frienship for nine years. If you can't set humility aside and just say sorry, then you didn't have that deep a friendship to begin with. So that was another inconsistency.

Ugh, I really hate that I can keep finding faults with this story. :(