Skip to main content

The Thirteenth Princess


The Thirteenth Princess

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and to me it’s a mystery why Disney hasn’t latched on to this one, too. For princess-crazed little girls, it has not one, not two, but 12 beautiful young women, all with fabulous wardrobes --- and all those shoes!

Just to recap for those of you who haven’t picked up THE RED FAIRY BOOK lately: the original story, collected by the Brothers Grimm, is about 12 royal sisters who all sleep together in the same locked room. They claim to sleep soundly each night, but every morning they come out looking exhausted, and their slippers are worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king offers a daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who discovers their secret. A clever soldier, helped by a witch’s invisibility cloak, secretly follows the sisters through a trap door and into an enchanted world, where the young women dance all night long with handsome young men. The soldier secretly collects evidence of their travels (a silver branch, a golden cup) and presents it to the king, who offers his eldest daughter’s hand in marriage when the girls finally confess.

Diane Zahler, a longtime fan of fairy tales, remains faithful to these original bones while leaving her own, more modern stamp on the story. Her kingdom is a darker, sadder place than the one in the Grimms’ tale; here the girls’ father is a cruel, angry man, driven to a life of bitterness and disappointment after his wife fails 13 times to give him a male heir, finally dying as she gives birth to their 13th daughter. That’s right --- 13. But there’s a reason we’ve never heard of this 13th princess before. She’s been banished from her sisters’ chambers, relegated to a life of servitude because she reminds her father too much of his late wife and her failings.

But when Zita (the only sister whose name does not start with “A”) discovers her parentage at the opening of the novel, she’s thrilled that she finally has a family; when her sisters claim her as one of their own, Zita is overcome with the unfamiliar new emotions of love and belonging. That’s why she grows so concerned when, seemingly overnight, her older sisters grow increasingly wan and weary, becoming ever duller companions to the prospective husbands their father brings home for their review.

Zita, advised by her new friends --- the stable boy, the witch and the soldier --- vows to get to the bottom of the mystery. She discovers that, although she might not share her sisters’ traditional beauty, she does have skills and a beauty of her own, one that might save her sisters, her family, and magic itself.

Zahler’s debut novel is a faithful but creative retelling of the original fairy tale, one that will appeal both to purists and revisionists. Zita is an appealing, bold character; her narration simultaneously preserves the old-fashioned narrative feeling of the classic fairy tales and also offers insights into her own vulnerabilities and strengths. At times, her voice sounds much older than her 12 years, but the fairy tale setting somehow makes her maturity and formality convincing. THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS brings modern sensibilities and a feminist spin to the classic story without diminishing its original charm and enchantment. Let’s hope Zahler considers retelling other often-overlooked tales for new generations of fairy tale fans.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 4, 2011

The Thirteenth Princess
by Diane Zahler

  • Publication Date: January 4, 2011
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 006182500X
  • ISBN-13: 9780061825002