Azalea is the heir to the throne of Eathesbury, a kingdom once ruled by a wicked sorcerer rumoured to steal people's souls. Her long-time ancestor was part of the rebellion against him, and succeeded in defeating him. While she may be a princess, she has ten sisters, and her family eat oatmeal for breakfast most days. Still, Azalea has come of age, and is looking forward to balls and suitors and most important of all, dancing, which she and all her sisters adore. Then her mother dies in childbirth, after a long illness, and while Azalea has yet another little sister, she and the other princesses are overcome with grief.
Their grieving is not made easier when they are told they have to wear mourning black for a year, all the windows and mirrors must be covered, the clocks must be stopped and there will be no socialising, balls or dancing for the entire year. The king, their father, grows distant and dismissive, and rides off to war for the first few months after their mother's death. While he is away, the princesses find one of the magical hidden passages the castle is riddled with, and a beautiful pavilion surrounded by silver trees, where they can dance the many dances their mother taught them, to their hearts' content. In the pavilion, there is a mysterious, handsome black-clad man, who calls himself the Keeper. He claims to have been trapped there by the wicked sorcerer, but invites them to dance as long as they wish. While they dance, they both remember their beloved mother and forget their grief, and the princesses all swear an oath not to tell anyone of their nightly escapades, or of the Keeper.
As the year progresses, and the king returns, it becomes harder for them to keep their dancing in the mysterious Keeper's pavillion a secret. Yet the oath they all swore keeps them from telling their father the truth, even after his demeanour towards them becomes warmer and more affectionate again. Their tattered dancing slippers bears proof of their dancing every night, but their magical oath keeps them from revealing anything about the secret passage or the Keeper, who takes such an interest in their family, and Azalea in particular. Their oath binds them even when it becomes obvious that the Keeper is not entirely benevolent, and has been stealing away little trinkets from each of the princesses. He needs them to find a magical artifact left over from the rule of the wicked sorcerer and destroy it, so that he can finally be free of the pavilion, and he's not going to let the princesses stop dancing until they do.
Way back in 2010, I read Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball, which was also based on the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses. While the books have some similarities, there are obviously 12 princesses, who sneak away to dance every night, they're all named after flowers (although in this one they're also named in alphabetical order, which is pretty impressive), and there's magic that keeps them from telling the truth and a quest set for suitors to try to figure out their mysterious nightly escapades - the stories are really quite different. The tone of Entwined is generally darker and more sinister. Both books do an excellent job of creating distinct and diverse personalities for the twelve girls - no easy feat, although it must be said, some of the princesses get less "screen time" than others.
Azalea is a great heroine, sensible and strong and caring, and sisters Bramble and Clover (the second and third oldest) are also fun and engaging supporting characters. All the girls are understandably deeply hurt by their father's cold dismissal of them after their mother's death, and when he returns from war, they are at first determined not even to share meals with him. The descriptions of the tiny kingdom, where the royal family are not really showered with riches, but only get fancy food on special occasions, through grants from parliament, create a lovely setting for the story. There are remnants of magic and magical objects, due to the distant past, but mostly, the princesses lives are rather mundane. The various courtly dances described are a nice touch, and the Entwine, which gives the book its title is especially evocative and given sinister significance when Azalea has to dance it with the Keeper.
Of the two fairly tale retellings of the same story, I think this is my favourite. Jessica Day George's book was very sweet, but Azalea and her sisters, and the very sinister villain of this one, win it for me. My biggest complaint is that Azalea and Clover's suitors never even get first names, which seems a bit silly, and makes parts of the book overly formal. But it's a minor quibble, and I shall be eagerly looking forward to more books from Heather Dixon - this was her debut novel.