A Tale of Two Castles: A Review

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson LevineElodie comes to the town of Two Castles with one goal: to become a mansioner. Her greatest hope, her only actual plan upon arriving in town, is to apprentice herself to a mansioner that she might become an accomplished performer in her own right.

When Elodie’s hope is dashed she is forced to look for another plan or starve in Two Castles with none of her family at home even knowing about her plight.

Help comes in the unusual form of a dragon named Meenore.

Mysteries (and cats) abound in Two Castles, which makes the town an ideal place for a dragon like Meenore to peddle ITs powers of deducing, inducing, finding missing things and missing people. Two Castles is also a fine town for a girl like Elodie to proclaim said dragon’s numerous talents and even to assist such a dragon in the solving of mysteries.

One of the castles in Two Castles belongs to the king, of course. But the other houses an ogre who might be in great danger. Or he might be preparing to devour townsfolk. One way or the other Elodie will have to help her Masteress Meenore make sense of the secrets in Two Castles. Together dragon and girl will have to induce, deduce and use common sense (and perhaps some mansioning) to separate the kind from the cruel and ultimately determine who can be trusted in A Tale of Two Castles (2011) by Gail Carson Levine.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Tale of Two Castles is Carson Levine’s first mystery–inspired partly by the story of “The Puss in Boots.”*

With our intrepid narrator Elodie being twelve years old, the story is essentially a children’s read but Elodie is strong enough as a character and the plot is exciting enough that it can easily appeal to older readers as well.

Carson Levine creates a well-realized world in Two Castles complete with its own customs and vocabulary. (Dragons always being called IT because only a dragon knows its own gender was a particularly nice touch.) In addition to creating an exciting whodunnit of sorts, A Tale of Two Castles is a simply a funny book. Elodie is completely out of her element and watching her make her way in the strange surroundings of Two Castles makes for several good laughs and a fair bit of drama besides.

As readers of her Newbery Honor title Ella Enchanted will expect, Carson Levine includes a lot of traditional fairy tale elements here and turns them completely upside down–mysteries are everywhere and nothing it as it seems. Elodie is a delightful narrator who, though she might stumble along the way, eventually finds the truth and a place for herself in this rollicking and winsome read.

*She explained this at her event last month at Books of Wonder. She is quite a funny and charming speaker so if you ever get a chance I STRONGLY recommend going to see her in person. You won’t regret it!

Possible Pairings: Murder at Midnight by Avi, Gideon the Cutpurse (AKA The Time Travelers) by Linda Buckley-Archer, Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley, The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Marvels by Brian Selznick, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Exclusive Bonus Content: How great is that cover? Illustrator Greg Call did a great job capturing the look of both Elodie and Meenore. Love it.

Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg by Gail Carson LevineFairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg (2005) is another book that I might not love. But no one can say the girls here aren’t super cool and resourceful, which is why it’s a CLW review. I just wish I could say the same for the book.

Gail Carson Levine, author of the insanely awesome novel Ella Enchanted, always thought that Wendy was crazy for going home when she could have stayed with Peter Pan in Neverland. At least that’s what her mini-bio on the dust jacket of her new novel says. Levine also dedicates the book to her first boyfriend, Peter Pan.

One of Disney’s newest marketing ventures is Disney Fairies, which is promoting Tinker Bell and the other characters found in Levine’s novel among other fairies. (There’s also a series of Fairy books for younger readers and a CGI film, not directly related to the events relayed in Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, which is due out this fall on Disney DVD. If you want to learn more, the Disney Fairies have their own website–but be advised it might take a bit to load on slower computers.) When I first heard about this new project, I was intrigued since I am a fan of fairies. At the same time, I was a bit worried. There’s something very commercial, and even counterintuitive, about a writer creating a story with characters that have already been dealt with by other authors (and a lot of movies!). Still, I decided to give it a try.

Before even getting into the story, though, I have to say that this novel is quite beautiful. The actual book is made of high quality paper to accommodate the illustrations that often feature as tw-page spreads throughout the novel. These pictures, watercolors painted by David Christiana, are stunning. The colors are subtle and really the skill is just so obvious in all of the drawings that viewing them is a joy. Christiana manages to stay true to the original Disney vision for Tinker Bell while making her “look” slightly new and different to better fit in with the other fairies.

Unfortunately, it takes more than great illustrations to sustain a good book. The basic plot stays pretty true to some of the elements found in the original story of Peter Pan. The book starts when a baby laughs (every time a baby laughs for the first time, a fairy is born). This fairy, named Prilla, is special. Not only is she going to be a Never Fairy in Neverland, she is also unlike any fairy the island has seen before. Prilla says “please” and “thank you” like humans (called “Clumsies” by fairies). She even curtsies and apologizes. Stranger still, Prilla is able to move between Neverland and the dreams of Clumsy children.

Every Fairy in Neverland has a special talent (water, baking, pots and pans, etc.)–every fairy except for Prilla. However, when a storm strikes the island injuring Mother Dove (the source of the Fairy Dust that allows Never Fairies to work their magic) Prilla doesn’t have much time to worry about not having a talent as she and two other fairies are sent out to try and find a way to heal Mother Dove.

I had several problems with the story. The idea of each fairy having a talent, while superficially cute, has deeper problems upon further investigation. It just feels too much like each fairy having a clique and, even worse, the story spends a lot of time focusing on Prilla being special in a bad way for not having a talent. This issue is resolved by the end of the story, but it just seems like a bad message to send to children. (And what’s up with the name Prilla? Seriously.)

The narrative of the story also started to grate very near the beginning of the book. I haven’t read J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan so I don’t know if Levine was trying emulate his style or not–I think she was but need to investigate further–but it just didn’t work. Frankly, it sounded like Levine was writing in a style that was not her own and with which she was not entirely comfortable.

Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg also seemed to be having an identity crisis. The book looks like a novel for older children. The print is small and there is a lot of it. But the story sometimes sounds like it was written for much younger children with prose that lacks the dimension and depth of books for an older audience. At the same time, though, the events of the novel (a fairy cutting off her own wings, a dying dove, among other problematic events) suggest that it’s more appropriate for an older audience.

The best parts of this novel were when Levine was looking at the characters originally found in Peter Pan. Her descriptions of the mermaids, and of Tinker Bell’s relationship with Peter were really enjoyable. Captain Hook also features in the plot and was awesome. Unfortunately all of these events take only about ten pages combined (the book is 208).

This book has a lot going for it and I wanted to like it more than I did, but all of the great pieces never come together (with the mediocre ones) to create a solid, enjoyable whole.

Ella Enchanted: A (mildly feminist) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson LevineWhen it comes to empowered heroines, Ella is the last word–except, really, she’s the first word. When I first started the CLW reviews, it was to exhibit books with protagonists like her. That said, bear with me for this review because I love the book and spent a good part of last semester writing a paper about why it is an effective feminist text while the movie adaptation loosely based on the novel totally sucks.

Feminists often denounce traditional fairy tales because they perpetuate the ideals of a patriarchal society by encouraging girls to behave like proper princesses and wait for charming princes to take charge and save the day. In response to these traditional fairy tales, many authors have tried to reclaim the realm of fairy tales for girls. These retellings feature active protagonists who are not scared of taking charge and do not need princes to save them. One example of this new fairy tale genre is the 1998 children’s novel Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, which takes an nontraditional approach to retelling the story of Cinderella.

Find it on Bookshop.

The novel addresses several specific feminist issues, specifically negotiating and fighting the burden of obedience, the importance of female friendships and, of course, learning to save yourself.

The story is set in an imaginary, medieval-esque kingdom called Frell. A roaming fairy named Lucinda gives Ella the gift/curse of obedience at Ella’s birth. As a result, Ella has to do everything she is told, no matter what harm it might cause to herself or others. (In the novel, the severity of Ella’s curse in constantly underscored with passages explaining how little control Ella has over her own life: “If someone told me to hop on one foot for a day and a half, I’d have to do it. And hopping on one foot wasn’t the worst order I could be given. If you commanded me to cut off my own head, I’d have to do it.”) As the plot moves forward Ella is compelled to leave home to try and find Lucinda and ask her to lift the curse. Along the way she also falls in love with Prince Char. For varying reasons, depending on the version, Lucinda refuses to lift the curse. Further difficulties arise as Ella continues her quest.

That’s the main body of the story. The Cinderella element is relevant mainly to the last quarter of the novel where actual elements from that story (the slipper, the ball) appear in the story, although the evil step-sisters and fairy godmother are present throughout the narrative.

There are several reasons that I love this novel and recommend it to everyone. The first is that it’s an imaginative retelling of Cinderella which makes the story exciting for readers familiar with the original version without making it too abtruse for readers who have never heard of Cinderella. Also, the book is full of great role models for girls. All of the female characters are strong, self-aware women–things seen far too rarely in the fairy tale genre. The novel is narrated in Ella’s voice. This makes it easy to see how strong Ella is as a character (especially at the end of the novel).

The other great thing about this book is that it all seems authentic, never over the top or under-written. In addition to creating immensely likable main characters, Levine creates a compelling world within the pages of Ella Enchanted vivid with details ranging from Elvish and Gnomish languages to customs at a Giant’s wedding. The story is an immensely entertaining page-turner that will (even better) leave readers feeling satisfied when they reach the final scene where Levine ties everything together, artfully blending empowerment with a happy-ever-after ending fit for a traditional fairy tale.

This review is excerpted from a scholarly paper I wrote comparing the book version of Ella Enchanted to its movie adaptation. You can read the full article here: http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/research_awards/1/

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself (2012) by Jeremy Whitley and illustrated by M. Goodwin, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede