A Tale of Two Castles
by Gail Carson Levine
Harper Collins, 2011
The past year has seen a resurgence in cozy fantasy. In this subgenre the characters are genial, the stakes low. It’s slice-of-life, not slice-of-death, and centers on community and friendship. It’s been led by the runaway success of the self-published Legends & Lattes on Amazon Kindle, about the travails of a female orc who opens up a coffee shop. But it’s also been a longtime staple in the YA community. What was Nancy Drew if not a series of cozy mysteries?
A Tale of Two Castles was a refreshing break from the overblown faerie romances and poorly worldbuilt dystopias I’ve encountered lately. I found it intelligent and engaging, with a slowly growing mystery that builds to a satisfying climax. Though aimed at MG readers, it was written with depth and skill, one of those rare books that felt, in a good way, to have been longer and more intricate than it really was. The author, Gail Carson Levine, specializes in MG/YA cozy fantasies; indeed she’s the author of the popular Ella Enchanted, a revisionist take on the Cinderella fairy tale.
The story is about Elodie, a 14-year-old peasant girl departing from her island home to become an apprentice on another island. Her parents hope her to become a weaver, but she has her heart set on becoming an actor, due to the influence of her family’s tenant. Being of humble origins Elodie carries only a few coins, and her arrival at her new home is complicated by the theft of those coins, and the fact that fashionable citizens wear caps, a problem because she now can’t afford one. Other notable residents include a king prone to making cruel practical jokes, his dippy daughter, a friendly ogre and his dog, and a dragon, all of whom Elodie becomes acquainted with as she tries to realize her thespian dreams.
Unlike a lot of the current potboiler YA books, the Medievalism felt accurate (save for the dragon, ogre, and magic, of course.) Clothes and luxuries are in short supply, and expensive; the majority of the market stalls are resellers. Yet, it’s cozy and familiar. Peasants eat small bundles of grains boiled with bits of meat and herbs – the author tells us how delicious they taste. There are rushes on the floor of castle halls and servants sleep there when the feasting is done, bundled in blankets. This is not a threatening world, but it’s not one of endless gowns and balls either.
The dragon was not a threat but a normal, law-abiding citizen known for making hot toasted bread sticks covered with cheese. Mysteriously, the reptile will not indicate its gender and is referred throughout the story as IT. Just like that, in caps. The book was published in 2011 so it’s possibly the first instance of a nonbinary character in children’s fantasy, occurring way before the current gender revisionism. Strangely, I got used to the IT after a while, even with the caps. The word indicated the creature’s uniqueness and the fact it was nonbinary more than either they or it would have. They would have been confusing, and it too nonspecific and disrespectful of the creature’s personhood. I know there are plenty of people out there who would rip me for not comfortable with using they as a nonbinary singular pronoun, but frankly, what works for a legal document or a puff-piece in a news article doesn’t work for fiction, where it’s just too damn confusing.
Elodie, who has second thoughts being apprenticed to the acting troupe, falls into the dragon’s employ where she acts as both housecleaner and spy, for a mystery is afoot at the ogre’s castle. The ogre, despite merely being a well-mannered, giant-size human, is not beloved by the people of the city, and it turns out… surprise! He’s to marry the dippy daughter of the king. But his beloved dog has been kidnapped and without the dog, he has no means to keep the cats of the city at bay, who have the power to force him to transform into a mouse. This rather clunky plot point was the only tweeness in the book, but I could forgive it for what happens after. A cat invades the ogre’s banquet, he becomes a mouse, and the castle is turned upside down as his servants try to find him. Elodie comes under suspicion and is locked in a tower under threat of being poisoned, with her dragon patron nowhere in sight.
I did wind up liking this book much more than I thought I would; for what it was, it was damn well perfect. I’m going to pass it on to younger relatives now.