Genre: Fantasy, Mystery, Middle Grade
Publisher: HarperTeen on May 10, 2011
Mysteries abound, especially in Two Castles.
A handsome cat trainer, black-and-white cats, thieves on four legs and two, suspicious townsfolk, a greedy king, a giddy princess, a shape-shifting ogre, a brilliant dragon. Which is the villainous whited sepulcher?
Elodie journeys to the town of Two Castles to become a mansioner—an actress—but luck is against her. She is saved from starvation by the dragon Meenore, who sends her on a dangerous mission inside the ogre’s castle. There, disguised as a kitchen maid at an ogre’s feast, she finds herself cast in the role of a lifetime and pitted against a foe intent on murder.
Newbery Honor author Gail Carson Levine weaves an entrancing tale of a fearsome ogre, a dragon detective, and a remarkable heroine, who finds friendship where she least expects it, learns that there are many ways to mansion, and discovers that goodness and evil come in all shapes and sizes.
The name Gail Carson Levine may sound familiar – she’s the author of several wildly popular children’s fantasy books, including Ella Enchanted and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I read and adored both of those books when I was in elementary school, so when I saw that she had started a new series it seemed like a no-brainer to jump on board. While I did enjoy it, I ultimately found that comparing A Tale of Two Castles to Carson Levine’s older works didn’t do the new book any favours.
A Tale of Two Castles is a children’s book, most likely geared towards kids in grades 4-6, so don’t expect a particularly sophisticated plot or writing style. What you can expect is a charming cast of characters, a cute mystery, and a heroine with a unique dream. Twelve year-old Elodie dreams of becoming a mansioner (the fancy term for actors) and sets off on her own to seek an apprenticeship in the city. It’s not until she gets there that Elodie realizes the prices for apprenticeships have increased drastically…and she cannot afford one. The poor girl has a run of seriously bad luck her first day in Two Castles: she worries about money, gets scared of the big crowds, and even gets mugged by a cat (don’t ask).
Much like Carson Levine’s older works, A Tale of Two Castles has a didactic quality. In English-major speak, that basically means that the book has an educational goal; in this case, to teach kids that judging people based on appearances is liable to get you in some seriously hot water. In one of the opening scenes, Elodie’s mother tells her to beware the “whited sepulchre,” a metaphor for someone that looks good on the outside but is decidedly less appealing on the inside. Unfortunately Elodie has a tendency to trust the wrong people, so she encounters her fair share of whited sepulchers. While some readers may find her naivety annoying, I could appreciate it since Elodie had no reason to be otherwise. The fact that she’s completely alone in a new place, supporting herself financially, and chasing her dream career made me forget that Elodie’s only twelve.
The city of Two Castles is named after – you guessed it! – the two castles on the city’s outskirts, one belonging to the human king and another to an ogre. The Ogre, Count Jaunty Um (the kind of name you only find in a children’s fantasy novel), may look intimidating but he’s definitely got a gentle giant thing going on. Despite that, Jaunty Um is hated and feared by the people of Two Castles…just because he’s an ogre. Even though the human king is known for his greed and warmongering, he’s still afforded more respect than the Count by the townspeople. Watch out for that whited sepulcher, people!
For all its simplicity in plot and style, there was a very interesting and surprising exploration of gender in A Tale of Two Castles. For dragons, there are no physical characteristics that distinguish a male dragon from a female dragon – only the dragon itself can know its gender. They get very huffy if you assume one way or the other, so Elodie and the other people of Two Castles are very careful to refer to dragons with gender neutral pronouns. The correct title for a dragon is “Masteress,” a blend of master and mistress. I thought “Masteress” was adorable and I think it could lead to some very important discussions between parents and children about our assumptions on gender in contemporary society. That said, I do wish that Carson Levine didn’t capitalize the gender neutral pronouns every time they were used. Reading “ITS” every other page got tiring pretty quickly.
The dragon Masteress Meenore was by far my favourite character. Cantankerous and exacting, Meenore is an obsessive compulsive cleaner and the best deductive reasoned in the city. Because of Meenore’s unique skills, the dragon is often called to solve crimes – and since Two Castles is overrun by pickpockets, Meenore is pretty busy. The dragon needs help advertising its investigative services and performing other minor tasks, so Elodie is invited to come work for Meenore. The young girl may not have an apprenticeship as a mansioner, but it’s going to take all of her acting skills to help a dragon, befriend an ogre, and catch a thief…
I would recommend A Tale of Two Castles as a read-aloud for parents and their kids, and also to advanced young readers who like mysteries and light fantasy. While the book has its charms, more mature readers may want to look elsewhere.