Gail Carson Levine is one of THE authors fairy tale readers turn to and list as a Master Writer. In fact, the only children’s book on my Top Five Favorites list is Ella Enchanted. Granted, I’m sure a lot of that is the nostalgia talking, but there it remains. When I heard that Levine had a new middle-grade novel coming out, I leapt to read it and saved it for the final Fairy Tale Fortnight Stop. While the novel wasn’t the best of the fourteen I’ve read, it was adorable and took me back to my fairy tale roots. I would have loved this novel when I was younger!
While A Tale of Two Castles may not be the most profound fairy tale novel, it’s utterly charming. Elodie is a plucky heroine full of spunk. After leaving home to become an apprentice in Two Castles, her only copper is stolen from her and she’s left with no money at all. Rather than wallow, however, she sets off to become a mansioner (actress), but when she’s refused as an apprentice, she winds up working for a dragon named Meenore. Most of the villagers are afraid of the dragon—and even more petrified when it comes to the ogre, Count Jonty Um, living in one of the city’s two castles. Not our Elodie, however. After an initial burst of fear (and who could blame her), she realizes that these “monsters” are kind souls who aren’t given enough credit. Yes, there is a hidden message in this novel: It’s what’s on the inside that counts—and Meenore and Count Jonty Um have hearts of gold. Levine initially based the story off the legend of Puss in Boots, which, if you recall, has Puss heading off to the castle to challenge the ogre to shape-shift. Count Jonty Um can also shape-shift, and Two Castles is full of cats that would like nothing more than to see him turn into a mouse. When this horrible occurrence happens, Elodie finds herself with a full-blown mystery on her hands. Who is trying to get rid of County Jonty Um, and why would anyone poison the king of the second castle in Two Castles? As Meenore’s apprentice, she’s expected to learn “Deduction, induction, and common sense.” Can the two discover the truth behind what’s going on before it’s too late?
Mixing a mystery with a fantasy in such a way was a brave move on Levine’s part, and a break from her normal fare. She does so with ease, however, creating an engaging mystery that will leave readers looking at every character through new eyes as they try to figure out “whodunit.” There’s a lot of room for future adventures with Meenore and Elodie, which would be welcome stories in the fantasy genre.
In addition to the mystery, one of my favorite things was the way Levine created Meenore. I haven’t read many novels with dragons, but the ones I have are all vastly different from one another. One of my favorite lines from the novel came when Elodie saw Meenore’s wings for the first time: “The wing was a mosaic of flat triangles, each tinted a different hue, no color exactly the same. Black lines of sinew held the triangles together, as lead holds the glass in a stained-glass window. The tinted skin, in every shade of pink, blue yellow, and violet, was gossamer thin. I saw raindrops bead on the other side” (pg 45). In addition, Levine uses Meenore’s smoke when describing the dragon’s mood, from dull scales when annoyed to bright pink smoke and red scales when angry, to gray smoke for sadness and white spirals of smoke when happy. Seeing such detail describe a dragon’s mood was a visual treat that I always looked forward to.
With a new book on the way, some of Levine’s books got a cover upgrade. Ella Enchanted and Ever now have designs to match A Tale of Two Castles:
A Tale of Two Castles is my favorite of the three. The cover embodies what the novel is about. I love how beautiful Meenore’s wings look; the artist really got the stained-glass look right. I also like the way you can see Elodie caught between the two castles of Two Castles, representing her struggle between the King and Count Jonty Um. I also like the treatment given to the title and author, which represents the banners such a kingdom might actually employ. The author design is also used in Ella Enchanted and Ever. After all these years, it’s strange to see Ella with a new cover, but at the same time, I love that the artist has her with that amazing magical book. I want a book like that. There’s also been controversy in the past over the fact that Levine’s characters look nothing like the cover depicts; these are a bit more diverse. Hand-illustrations are big in children’s literature right now, so I think young readers are likelier to pick up these editions than they are the current ones. This is especially true with Ever; the first edition looks more Teen than Middle-Grade, which steers parents and children away from it.
[Review based on ARC edition courtesy of netGalley; all quotes subject to change in final version] A TALE OF TWO CASTLES is available May 10, 2011 at a bookstore near you!
Check out today's FTF Event Schedule!