The country of Westfalin (basically like 18th century Germany) has finally won a long and costly war against the neighbouring country of Andalousia (bits of Spain). Galen is the son of a soldier, whose mother was an army laundress. He grew up following the army, and lost his father, mother and little sister during the war. On his way to the capital, hoping to find his mother's sister, he meets an old lady and kindly shares his meagre provisions with her. She thanks him and insists on giving him three presents as thanks. He is given two balls of wool, one black "and strong as an iron chain", one white "like a swan, floating on water", as well as a magical cloak that can turn him invisible. He tries to refuse, but the crone claims his need is greater than hers.
When he arrives in the capital, it turns out that his uncle is prosperous, having made money during the war taking care of the late queen's precious garden. Galen is trained as an under-gardener, and soon meets the twelve princesses of the kingdom, who all love the garden too. While his uncle detests gossip, several of the other gardeners and palace servants tell him of the great mystery of the princesses' dancing slippers. Every third day the princesses are found in their rooms, exhausted, while all their slippers are worn through. Even though their bedroom doors are locked and guarded and they have maids in their rooms. The king is distressed at the extra expense of constantly buying his twelve girls new slippers, but none of his daughters will tell him why the slippers get worn out.
The first time Galen meets Rose, the eldest of the princesses (all named for flowers in the garden that Queen Maude loved), she nearly falls into a fountain, and gets rather wet. He is embarrassed at first, then distressed, as the princess falls ill, first with a cold, then with pneumonia. One by one, her sisters fall ill as well, and even when they are all sick, their slippers end up worn through. It takes the girls months to recover, as they are clearly exhausted by their late night dancing, yet none of them will tell anyone what they do at night.
At his wit's end, King Galen invites foreign princes to his kingdom, offering to let them solve the mystery of the princesses' midnight adventures in return for the hand in marriage of one of the girls. Yet one by one, the princes fail, get infuriated, leave Westfalin, and shortly after die in horrible accidents. As the months go on, and more princes die, the neighbouring countries start accusing the princesses of witchcraft. Galen, who has gotten to know all the girls, and who has befriended and then fallen for Rose, is determined to help the girls, and solve the mystery, before the country is plunged into another war, which would devastate the country.
Princess of the Midnight Ball is a retelling of the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In an interview included in the extras in the book, Ms George says she always wondered about this tale, thinking that if the girls danced their slippers through every single night, they must be exhausted and weary, and from this speculation, her story developed. Even with twelve different princesses, aged between 17 and 6, the various girls have distinct personalities, and it's rarely difficult to keep them apart.
Rose may be a princess, but she is troubled by the burden of taking care of all her younger sisters after their mother's death. While she would prefer to be carefree, she still shoulders the responsibilities given to her, acting as hostess for her father at social functions and surrogate mother. She is helped by her eldest sisters, but none the girls don't have it easy, forced to dance in the court of the King Under Stone first every third night, then every night, even when they are sick to death with flu. If they try to tell anyone what is going on, they are either unable to speak or spout silly nonsense, even when the situation gets serious and the clergy accuse them of witchcraft.
Galen may be of common birth, but he is loyal and resourceful and kind to those around him. As a true fairy tale hero, he is rewarded for his kindness with magical gifts, and these prove instrumental in helping save the princesses from the curse. He is fully aware of the impropriety of an under-gardener being friends with a princess, let alone loving her, but can't help himself, and becomes more and more fond of all the girls the longer he works in the garden. He decides to help the princesses not in the hopes of the king's reward, as he is convinced no king would want his daughter marrying a gardener, but he cannot stand to see the girls suffer any longer, and possibly get excommunicated and convicted of witchcraft.
The story has a mystical quest, helpful old people, an evil villain in a sinister underground kingdom, determined that the Westfalian princesses will marry his half-human sons. It has a brave hero who knits his own socks and scarves and is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and twelve lovely princesses cursed by the foolish decisions of their now-dead mother. I was delighted by Jessica Day George's last fairy tale retelling, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, and this one was also excellent. It's also the first book I've read that contains knitting patterns in the back. I am very much looking forward to Day George's take on Cinderella, currently out in hardback, and will buy and read it as soon as it's out in paperback.