Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
When Jena and her four sisters moved into an old castle on the edges of a Transylvanian forest in the 1500s they expected their lives would be different but never expected magic. Once a month the girls can pass from their quiet, isolated lives into the faerie realm and dance the night away, a welcome reprieve when their widower father has left them for his health and their remaining cousin Cezar is encroaching more and more on their few freedoms. But things seem to be getting worse these days and soon they are attacked on both sides with no one left to help them take control of their lives.
Somehow I didn't realize before I started reading that this would be a take on the 12 Dancing Sisters fairytale, it's a bit of a loose take but has the same major ideas (multiple sisters secretly leaving to dance and a guy trying to figure out to where). I can't help but keep comparing it to The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, another retelling I read earlier this year which in the end I preferred more. Beyond the more unique setting of Kingfisher, I felt like it's character writing was much, much stronger. Here the oldest sister Tati is more of an obstacle than a character; having known many, many people in my life who have been in love Tati's complete withdrawal from the world after her crush on Sorrow felt wholly unrealistic. She even ignores her family so much that she puts them in danger from her action which felt like lazy writing since it semi-contradicted her (few) actions prior to this. The other four girls fare a bit better, especially since one is only five, but the character writing still felt stilted throughout.
This wasn't the only part of the story that felt like it lacked a bit of polish, the conflict with the girl's cousin Cezar also felt very much like the author wanted events to happen but couldn't let them unfold naturally. Every single time there is a clash he comes out on top, despite being shown over and over as a very young, very inexperienced young man which made the story feel like it was reaching and very unsatisfying to read. You need to give your characters successes and failures to keep the reader engage, build a connection, a sense of risk etc, here it was too easy to think "well this is going to end terribly again won't it?" When karma finally begins to catch up with Cezar it has frustratingly little to do with Jena or any of her sister's actions.
Going back to the setting, honestly I felt like Marillier was too wedded to the idea of their being "good" and "bad" faeries (who of course aren't so much "good vs bad" as they are beings with different morals from humans, another cliched move), even after the characters start to question that basic alliance. I was also wholly not expecting vampires, considering that Sorrow is one that endeared him to me even less, "oh great, I thought we were past the vampire-romantic-interest phase". All of these little things added up for me and while it wasn't a bad book, it was a frustrating read at times and I don't see myself reading the sequel either.