Fortunately there are several fictional versions for fans of the story, and there's really so much you can do with the mysterious underground kingdom. Just looking through the descriptions of the plots (Modern Interpretations via Surlalune) each author handles the tale quite differently. As I discovered from Surlalune's book in Underground Kingdom: Parts I and II, even variants of the tale don't agree on what kind of Kingdom it is. It can be evil/neutral/good, and the women in question can go there willingly or as victims.
I decided to check out the novel by Jessica Day George, Princess of the Midnight Ball. It's a fairly traditional retelling of the story but I like how it fleshed out the characters and the plot. It was found in the teen section of my library although it could just as easily have been in the children's section. The writing was easy to follow, and the clues to the mystery a bit obvious, but at the same time it was kind of refreshing to read such an innocent version. The current trend in fairy tales is to explore their darker, adult roots, which I enjoy as well, but sometimes I notice that in order to combat the frilly and saccharine stereotype that fairy tales have, I/the fairy tale community in general tend to get defensive and point out the horrific parts: "fairy tales have VIOLENCE and SEX!" Which is certainly true, but is that why we like them or what makes them good stories?
Anyway, considering the younger audience the writing was pretty good (I would reserve "excellent" for books like Narnia or the early Harry Potters when it comes to children's books). One of my favorite descriptions was of King Under Stone, the ruler of the Underground Kingdom, who was pale and tall and gaunt and had "eyes like chips of obsidian." Doesn't that paint such a vivid picture in your mind?
And if you're wary of it being too close to the traditional story, George expands the mystery of why the sisters go to the Kingdom every night, and the ending isn't quite as simple as in the Grimm fairy tale, so that part does get a little more exciting. If I were to critique the gender roles-which didn't particularly bother me when reading it-I would wish the girls were a little more proactive, because in this story it's Galen, the soldier, who does all the discovery of the mystery and the ultimate solution to the problem. It's kind of ironic actually-in this old post from 2010 I reflected on the fact that the soldier in "12 Dancing Princesses" doesn't actually do much except for follow the old woman's instructions. It's the females who are having the adventures, and you can surmise that it took something proactive for them to discover the Kingdom in the first place, although that's left up to your imagination. The romance was also too love-at-first-sight for me, especially for a novel in which there is plenty of time to develop a love through multiple conversations.
Errol le Cain
Overall I would definitely recommend it to adults who either are looking for a light and easy read, and/or are wanting to explore some different interpretations of this fairy tale. And I would absolutely recommend it to a younger reader, it could be a great introduction to the world of fairy tales. Traditional novel retellings are great because the stark and odd details of a fairy tale can seem more realistic and personal.
Anyone else who's read it have anything to add? And what other novel versions of "Twelve Dancing Princesses" would you recommend?