Top critical review
Love Klassen's work, but I just couldn't finish this one...
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 23, 2013
Let me preface this review by saying I love, love, love Julie Klassen's books. My favorites by her are "The Maid of Fairbourne Hall" and "The Silent Governess," both of which I think are far and away her best works. "Apothecary's Daughter" really bombed for me, but she wrote so many other amazing books I was able to forgive one bobble.
So, as much as I love her writing, needless to say I was VERY excited when "Dancing Master" arrived on my doorstep early. I eagerly jumped right in, anticipating another beautiful, beautiful novel. But as I read along, a few things started coming to my attention... And they just were not things I liked.
First, I shall list the PROS:
Historical Accuracy: As always, JK's research is spot on. I can honestly feel like I stepped through a portal back in time every time I read one of her novels. Her settings are always rich and well described - giving me all the information I need to set the scene and finish filling in the blanks myself without beating me over the head with it. I could smell the fresh bread in the air; feel the fabric against my skin; hear the rich music filling my ears. She's just THAT good at writing her settings.
Alec & his family: These were some of my favorite characters in the book. Alec, his mother, and his sister are all very likeable characters - its easy to connect with all of them. Aurora, his sister, is very sweet and humble, and she always brightened every scene in which she appeared. His mother was very quiet, calm, and strong, and she was a character I feel people in such situations can aspire to be (though she did make one bad choice, though she admitted it later and apologized for deceiving her fellow villagers). Alec, I felt, was a very strong hero, well rounded as a character with a noble personality, and reading his thoughts never got old.
Prose: As always, JK's writing is beautiful. Every sentence flows very well into the next, and her phrasing and descriptions are very true to the time. (I'm not saying I'm an expert on the era, but I have done extensive reading on the subject, and many, many books set in that time period, and I feel her books are truest to these things).
And now, the CONS:
Julia and her family: The Midwinters are very - well, wintry. While it eventually makes sense why Amelia is the way she is, I still can't understand her, nor connect with her. I disagree with many decisions the author had her make, though I will further discuss this later. Julia was a very ... strange heroine, and also very difficult to connect with as she had several mood swings. She went from gentle and smiling to pouting and bratty several times, with hardly a warning, and it was very jarring. Though she seems to want to rebel against her mother's strictures and rules, she winds up coming across as a spoiled brat rather than a strong, independent heroine. I spent most of what part of the book I did read wanting to slap her for acting like she did. She lied, sneaked around, flirted indiscriminately, and generally came across as someone less than admirable. Perhaps this was done for an effect, but I didn't see any change in the character throughout the book, and I read to within 100 pages of the end.
Plot: While, in theory, this story was a good idea, I felt like JK tried to juggle too many balls at once. There was Alec's story - why his family left London and their (formerly) lucrative dancing academy and came to a place where there IS no dancing; the question of Julia's parentage and how the situation played out; Julia's disbelief and distrust of everyone around her, even Alec at times; and the up-and-down of Alec and Julia's relationship. I don't expect the road to romance to be smooth - where would be the fun in that? - but there was so much strife in this one, even when I skipped ahead to the epilogue I could still hardly believe they wound up together. Another thing I've enjoyed about JK's writing is the fact she can keep me guessing - but I saw every single plot "twist" in Dancing Master coming a mile before it arrived. It was very disappointing, considering how good most of her other novels have been.
Amelia's Decisions (SPOILERS): I will admit, this is when I stopped reading the book and skipped to the epilogue. Julia did come across as a selfish brat many times throughout the book, and I could understand SOME of Amelia's decisions regarding her. But I feel the author took this way, way too far when she (graphically) described the death of Alec's horse, Apollo. While out riding, Julia made a reckless decision, and Alec's horse followed hers. He's not as good a rider as her, and when Apollo attempted the same jump Julia's horse had just taken, he wound up breaking both his legs. Though this did sadden me, I might have kept going if not for what happened right after that. JK's description of the event were surprisingly graphic, but what really got me was when Amelia made Julia stay and watch while the Midwinter's most trusted servant shot the horse. That was just beyond shocking and far too cruel, even for that character. JK's never done anything like that in a novel before, and I hope she never does it again. There are some lines that should never be crossed in fiction, and I feel JK crossed that very line in this book.
Altogether, I just couldn't finish the book. As much as I love Julie Klassen's writing, ordinarily, there were just too many things that bothered me about "Dancing Master," with that last point going so far as to make me sick to my stomach. Perhaps she didn't mean for it to come across that way, but to me, it felt needlessly cruel and damaging to the characters and the plot. While I heartily recommend other of her books, particularly my two favorites listed above, I just can't in good conscience do so with this one.
Will I read another new book by her? Definitely! She's still one of my favorite authors, but I'm afraid I have to put this one by way of "Apothecary's Daughter" - it just missed the mark. Though if you did like "Apothecary's Daughter," you'll probably like this one. I saw many similarities between the two.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this review. I genuinely hope I helped you make a decision one way or another if you were, perhaps, on the fence about buying this book.