Book Review: Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine

May 16, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Elodie wants more than anything to be a mansioner and perform before crowds, and she leaves her farm in Lahnt to pursue an apprenticeship with the mansioners in Lepai’s capital town of Two Castles. When she gets, there, however, she learns that things are very different than they were on her farm. Cats are trained to steal and stalk ogres, people are not always to be trusted, ogres are not always to be feared, and dragons can be very prickly creatures, who never reveal their gender to anyone and must always be referred to as IT. Mysteries abound in Two Castles, and under the guidance of the dragon Meenore, she’ll learn to deduce and induce and unravel the puzzles that threaten the lives of those around her.

I love Gail Carson Levine; Ella Enchanted is one I reread several times a year. It’s one of my rainy afternoon I feel like crud books. That being said, I felt this one fell a little short.

Elodie is a wonderful character. She’s interesting and strong and forthright- which can help her as much as hinder her- and very clever. Her passion and talent for mansioning- acting- is very clear and leaks through into everything she does. It’s never far from her thoughts or actions. She practices the Two Castles dialect at every opportunity. She studies how people walk and talk, how they hold themselves. She makes the best of things; when circumstances don’t work out quite the way she expects (or hopes), she looks for the best options. She makes mistakes and she’s willing to learn from them, quite a rare trait in and of itself, and she tries to temper a trusting nature with common sense, to varying degrees of success. She’s a skilled actress, which serves her well on many occasions, but she’s also kind and sincere. She is by far the most clearly defined character.

Much of the plot revolves around the idea of people not being who or what they seem, of the mysterious actions people take and the reasons they take them. To do this, Levine purposefully keeps Elodie in the dark, keeps the other characters in a murky, nebulous state that is to be constantly questioned, re-evaluated, and still not clearly decided upon. For Elodie, it’s important. For the reader, a bit more clarity would be good. Readers are often allowed to know things that characters- even narrators- aren’t, and it would have been good for us to have a better handle on the characters. Not necessarily to know everything about them- that would ruin the surprise- but they should feel less mutable. Elodie exists in a sea of grey where the other characters are just names and faces. Occasional flashes peek through: Count Jonty Um, the ogre, is sweet and kind, despite his fearsome exterior, and while decidedly prickly, Meenore generally means well. But Goodwife Celeste, Goodman Dess, Master Thiel, Princess Renn…they’re significant to the story in every way, and yet, at the end, we know very little about them.

As always with Levine, however, the details are lovely, specifically the historical aspects like the mansioning- which was once performed in medieval times in caravans called mansions, in which each house represented a different portion and tenor of the play- and the clothing, right down to regional variations and the very normal fact of fleas and lice. The apprenticeships are also a fact, sometimes hard and seemingly unfair, but frequently the only way to get ahead. Right down to the details about the food and the money.

One of the running pieces that I really loved was Elodie’s continued- and silent- determination to try to guess Meenore’s gender. Meenore is referred to as IT through the entire piece, and as a title is called Masteress, which is a really nice combination of Master and Mistress that again speaks to the eye for detail present in all of Levine’s work.

What really disappointed me, and I’ll be appropriately vague here, is the ending. It was very…neat. Understandably, it’s a middle grade novel, so it’s not going to hit you in the face with anything, but I still expected there to be consequences for the actions taken. That there weren’t…well. All actions have consequences, especially actions as significant as those we see taken through this story, and I very much would have liked to see those. It’s unclear whether there’ll be a sequel to this. It’s definitely open to it, but at the same time, there’s no particular need for it to continue, so I suppose we’ll see.

This is one to give to the better readers, the ones patient enough to sift through all of the puzzles and not mind that most of the characters never really develop. The writing is enjoyable and Elodie is a wonderful narrator, so it’s a pleasant way to pass a few hours. Check it out if you’re a fan, but this isn’t going to be the book that hooks you on Gail Carson Levine.

Until next time~

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