The Girls at the Kingfisher Club: Twelve dancing princesses meet the Roaring Twenties

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAs far as fairy tale retellings go, mingling the tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses with the 1920’s New York speakeasies makes a lovely kind of sense. The prohibition, the dance halls, the high society – it all fits perfectly with the story of twelve princesses who sneak out of their rooms every night, much to the bewilderment of their father when he sees their worn-out shoes every morning.

Genevieve Valentine transports the familiar beats of the story to a Fifth Avenue townhouse in the Roaring Twenties, in which the daughters of wealthy magnate Joseph Hamilton are kept in captivity, seen by no one but themselves. He was eager for a son of course, but his wife died after twelve girls (including two sets of twins).

This leaves Josephine, the firstborn, as the closest thing the youngest have to a mother. It is she that comes up with the idea of sneaking out at night to dance in the city’s underground speakeasies, and it’s for this reason she becomes known as “the General” by her siblings, given the way she manages their temporary escapes.

But it’s a heavy burden of responsibility and things get worse when their father announces his plans to marry them all off to eligible – but unknown – suitors. Jo has no idea how to proceed: she and her sisters own nothing, and their father is not a man to be crossed. With police raiding the nightclubs and bootleggers honing in on their secret, Jo has to walk a careful tightrope in order to protect her sisters, making plenty of sacrifices and taking just as many risks along the way.

Valentine’s sparkling prose captures all the dancing, costumes, sequins, feathers and shoes of the original story, but on another level, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club depicts the psychological strain the girls suffer through while under the thumb of a controlling, abusive father. She’s very good at subtlety demonstrating a character’s thoughts and moods, and making insightful comments about human nature.

Although he only once resorts to physical violence, Joseph Hamilton is a terrifying figure, while Jo’s fear at her sisters’ vulnerability is palpable. Valentine also makes a valiant effort at characterizing twelve different girls (plus several male characters) with distinct personalities – not an unimpressive feat! The only thing that got on my nerves was the sheer number of sentences in parentheses. There’s at least one on every page, usually completely unnecessarily.

But The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a lovely update on a familiar fairy tale that’s not often rewritten despite its potential for exploration and deconstruction.

~Rebecca FisherThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews


The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club is an excellent retelling/updating of a classic fairy tale into a more modern setting. Rather than a pseudo-medieval castle filled with princesses and their suitors, Genevieve Valentine gives us twelve sisters living in New York City during the Roaring Twenties who have been shut away from the world by their father. Their only entertainment, and their only contact with the outside world, come from clandestine nightly excursions to speakeasies hidden throughout the city. The sisters, in no particular order, are: Doris, Rebecca, Araminta, Josephine, Louise, Sophie, Rose, Lily, Mattie, Hattie, Ella, and Violet.

I loved the way that the sisters were written — they didn’t hate each other, they didn’t snipe at one another and try to tear one another down in order to benefit themselves; they supported each other, even when they were arguing or making bad decisions. There was no ridicule for dancing with only one or multiple men, no lectures about inappropriate dress or loose behavior, no jealousy over the prettiness of certain sisters or the attention one or another might receive — just overwhelmingly positive support. All women should be lucky enough to have sisters or friends who love them this much.

Valentine portrays 1920’s speakeasy culture very well — the rebellion against the previous generation and its expectations of “proper behavior,” social structure, and adherence to the laws of Prohibition for women and men of any social class. Her characters exemplify the way that young people would feel smothered by those expectations in an era of change and new possibilities — the ways that they might lash out, whether by dancing late at night or bootlegging (or worse). Additionally, she explores the fact that well-heeled young women who snuck out to dance could be punished with confinement in an asylum, while young men who engaged in criminal activity would merely be thrown in jail.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club isn’t a strict retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but that works in the novel’s favor. The story is not only more interesting, but more accessible, by being updated to a more modern time period. The original tale is a framework for the novel to grow around; Valentine’s story is faithful to the source material, but not slavishly so, and differs greatly enough to feel fresh and new. The ending, in particular, was a welcome surprise because there were so many other elements which differed from the original tale.

I will be purchasing a copy of this book at the first possible opportunity.

~Jana Nyman

Published in 2014. “Dressed up in the thrill and sparkle of the Roaring Twenties, the classic fairy tale of ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ has never been more engrossing or delightful. Valentine’s fresh, original style and choice of setting make this a fairy tale reimagining not to be missed” (Library Journal, starred review). Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the only thing the Hamilton girls have in place of a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their father’s Manhattan townhouse and into the cabs that will take them to the speakeasy. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until the day he decides to marry them all off. The girls, meanwhile, continue to dance, from Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they’ve come to call home. They dance until one night when they are caught in a raid, separated, and Jo is thrust face-to-face with someone from her past: a bootlegger named Tom whom she hasn’t seen in almost ten years. Suddenly Jo must balance not only the needs of her father and eleven sisters, but her own as well. With The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, award-winning writer Genevieve Valentine takes her superb storytelling gifts to new heights, joining the leagues of such Jazz Age depicters as Amor Towles and Paula McLain, and penning a dazzling tale about love, sisterhood, and freedom.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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5 comments

  1. Kelly Lasiter /

    This sounds like something I’d like!

  2. I liked that it was a fairy tale with no magic.

  3. Katharine Ott /

    I read this book a couple years ago and really enjoyed it, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/997287913. It’s one of my favorite fairy tales too.

  4. This sounds fun. Straight into my must read pile

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