Tuesday, April 19, 2011

With apologies to Charles Dickens…

A Tale of Two Castles
by Gail Carson Levine

I’ve had a good stretch lately, where I’ve been reading at a ferocious pace. But I suddenly came to a grinding halt a few days ago. Nothing I was reading was inspiring me to keep turning pages. At times like that, a trick that often perks me up is to read a young adult book and I lose myself in pure story. That’s what I did, and it worked like a charm.

Actually, I didn’t lose myself in A Tale of Two Castles right away. It took a while because at the start of the novel Gail Carson Levine is working mightily on the world building. The story opens with a goodbye. Twelve-year-old Elodie is saying goodbye to her parents, her home, and everything she’s ever known. She’s leaving her island and the farm and sailing off to the city of Two Castles which features—you guessed it—two castles. It is time for her to become apprenticed. “Mother and father’s instructions were to apprentice myself to a weaver, but I would not. Mansioner. I mouthed the word into the wind, the word that held my future. Mansioner.”

Oh, I’m sorry; you don’t know what a mansioner is? I didn’t either. In the fairy-tale world that Carson Levine has created that’s the word for actor. A ship is a “cog.” You might wear a “kirtle” and exclaim, “Lambs and calves!” And you might run into a dragon or an ogre—but not if you can help it. In fact, Elodie’s father gave her this parting advice, “Stay clear of the crafty dragons and the shape-shifting ogres. Don’t befriend them!” Of course, a dragon and an ogre are indeed two of the very first beings she meets in Two Castles, but not before all her money is stolen by a cat and she’s insulted by a human. Scared, hungry, and alone, Elodie is in fairly dire straights. Her dream of becoming a mansioner appears to be ending before it has even started. So, when the dragon Meenore offers her a position as ITs (for Mastress Meenore alone knows ITs gender) assistant, what choice does Elodie have but follow IT to ITs lair?

So begins a relations ship based on “deduction, induction, and common sense,” in which each learns from the other. Mastress Meenore has many trades including food service, heating, finder of lost objects, and unraveler of mysteries. So it is that the ogre, Count Jonty Um, comes to Meenore seeking help finding a lost dog. But it turns out that that is merely the beginning of his troubles. The ogre is in danger, and so Elodie becomes Meenore’s eyes and ears in his castle as they work to unravel the larger mystery.

Carson Levine’s story is as magical as it is well-written. Her characters are colorful and endearing. I am a fortunate 42-year-old woman, that I can still be a child. Books like this are time portals for me. I was delighted with this story from start to finish and was sad to see it end. Happily, the end of this novel is the start of a new adventure, one that I shall look forward to reading.

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