Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

See, this is a what I want in fairy tale retellings: it's not a story that's been retold 10 times in the last year alone and wasn't simply transplanted into modern day America. I'm also super fond of the 1920s in general so this was a triple bonus for me, especially since I tend to have awful luck finding books set in the twenties and thirties that I actually like.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Every night, twelve sisters slip out of their house and then dance to their hearts content in the speakeasies of 1920s New York City. It may look carefree to some of their many admirers but oldest sister Jo has strict rules to keep them all safe and secret. But nothing this large and fantastical will go unnoticed forever and when their father starts making inquires the girls have to decide if they want to run away forever or be married off like their into an even more secluded life. 

I think that many of the readers for this book will have already heard of the "12 Dancing Princesses" story in some form or another and while the book doesn't hide that inspiration it's not overly faithful to it either. The story is from the viewpoint of the girls, not the father or a dashing prince (there's a lack of princes in general in this book) and in some ways has a more credible start to the story. The versions I remember of the story were told not by the girls but by an outsider which served to make the princesses mysterious but ultimately without reason for their actions, they were bored and rebellious but had lives filled with basically anything they could want. Here the girls are locked away and completely isolated from the world, it's no wonder that they're sneaking out every night that they can and that this is the only way Jo can keep them from running away into a world they're woefully unprepared for altogether. 

The story also manages to give each of the twelve girls, plus side characters, their own personalities and motivations which is quite a feat. There were still points where I had to think for a moment to remember which sister was which but, given that the girls themselves encourage people to accidentally mix them up and that Jo is the only one with regular scenes all by herself, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. Valentine groups the girls together quite a bit to make it easier to characterize all dozen of them and one of the easiest ways to show off a character's personality is to make them interact with a large number of other characters, it feels like smart writing and not like a shortcut (especially since this isn't a Song of Ice and Fire sized book). I similarly liked the detail she put in the setting, not in descriptions of clothing and make-up but the tone of the speakeasies where the girls go to and the atmosphere in their lives. It both does and doesn't feel like it's own fairy tale, on the one hand it seems too well-grounded with the very real fears the girls have but on the other hand the world is so detached from the reader (by dint of being 90 odd years ago) that it manages to capture that timeless feeling of a fairy tale as well.

I've been trying to end my reviews recently with recommendations for other books for people to read and I frankly I'm having a hard time thinking of another novel like this. Shadows on the Moon was another retold fairy tale that established a great physical and atmospherical setting but that's the only one that easily comes to mind. I have heard that Valentine put out another book recently which sounds completely different but after enjoying this one so much I'll be sure to see what else she's written!   

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