Book Review: ‘The City Beyond the Glass’

By Sarah Pennington

Gemma Caloprini is trapped. She’s trapped by her father’s rules, which keep her and her two sisters locked within their family’s home. She’s trapped by society’s expectation that she either marry or live out her days in a convent. And she’s trapped by the Glass Doge, who rules the Glass City beyond the mirrors where she and her sisters secretly escape every night to dance and forget their troubles. Then, a fatal misstep on her part destroys both her family’s reputation and her betrothal—and sets her father wondering where his daughters wear out their shoes dancing each night. As suitors hound the steps of Gemma and her sisters, trying to solve their mystery, and as the Glass Doge demands a price for the pleasures he offers, Gemma hatches a plan she hopes will secure her freedom. But will the cost be more than she wants to pay?

“The City Beyond the Glass,” the latest historical fairytale retelling from Christian author Suzannah Rowntree and published on April 2, reimagines the classic fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in Renaissance Italy. Two common themes run through almost all versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”: the desire for freedom and the love of family, specifically between sisters. “The City Beyond the Glass” stays true to both themes; freedom and family drive almost every decision the characters make. However, it’s in the former theme that the power of this novel lies. Gemma and her sisters are not the only ones in “The City Beyond the Glass” who want to escape something. Almost every character present seeks freedom, whether from debt, societal obligations, or the dark power of the Glass Doge. Many of them are ready to pay any price in order to gain that freedom, but they only find themselves more entrapped. In the end, readers see that true freedom cannot be gained through one’s own efforts, only through another’s sacrifice. 

The second common theme, the love of family, also plays a major role. Gemma’s love for her sisters drives many of her decisions—but an admirable motive does not always mean an admirable character. Gemma loves her sisters, yes, but as one character observes, her love easily becomes a desire for control over them. And while Gemma wants to protect her sisters, some of the actions she takes to achieve that goal are borderline villainous. Yet, at the book’s darkest moment, it’s sisterly love that inspires the saving sacrifice.

Retellings of The Twelve Dancing Princesses tend to be dark, and “The City Beyond the Glass” is no exception. As already noted, Gemma and most of the other major characters are not heroes to be unconditionally emulated. Instead, they are realistic, fallen people. They inhabit an equally fallen world and dabble in things that put their souls at risk—not just in the normal way but also in the possessed-by-dark-magic way. However, this darkness is not without purpose, for it allows the power of the allegory to shine all the brighter.

One final note: although “The City Beyond the Glass” is fantasy, it’s very historical fantasy. Rowntree is known for carefully researching the settings of her novels, and that effort shows in the final product. Her version of Renaissance Venice is as historically accurate and detailed as a fantasy novel can be.  As a result, “The City Beyond the Glass” will appeal not just to the fantasy crowd but also to lovers of historical fiction.

In conclusion, “The City Beyond the Glass” is a dark and lovely retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” It weaves strong themes and realistic characters into a subtle allegory that readers will enjoy whether or not they are familiar with the original story. Fans of the book will want to look up Suzannah Rowntree’s other historical fairytale retellings, as well as “Pendragon’s Heir,” a retelling of the King Arthur legends.

Sarah Pennington is a sophomore Professional Writing and Information Design major and an Arts and Entertainment reporter for Cedars. She loves chai tea and dragons and is perpetually either reading or writing a book.

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