Book Review: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine

February 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

If I really like a book, chances are fairly high that I will reread it at least once a year. If I really love a book, chances are extremely high that I will reread it several times in a year. These are the books that I can pick up at any time, from any point in the book, and simply lose myself in the familiar pages.

I was super-stressed this past week. There was a lot that was up in the air and I’m not necessarily the best with up-in-the-airness. I like to have all my ducks in a row, to have things settled, and to know exactly where things (and people) stand. I’m fine with the fact that all these things will change with circumstances, but I still like knowing that things are settled. This was not a week of being settled or knowing where things stood. This was a week of high stress, scattered thoughts, highs and lows, and just a ton of things going on from a variety of fronts. So, lacking the focus to do anything productive, equally lacking the mental ability to tackle a new book, I turned to one of my stand-bys.

This weekend, I reread Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and loved just as much as I do every other time. For anyone who’s never heard of this Newbery Honor Winner:

A gift given by a demented fairy never amounts to much good, to which Ella can atest. When she cried through her first hour of life, the fairy Lucinda gave her the “gift” of obedience; Ella has to obey a direct order, no matter what it is. But Ella isn’t about to let that run her life. This spirited girl throws herself head-first into a world of mercenary fathers, finishing school tyrants, dangers of the road, horrid step-familys, dear friends, and a chance for true love that might come at a terrible cost, all with an indefagitable spirit and charm that no curse can ever break.

I honestly can’t remember the first time I read this book, just that I fell in love with it then. It was probably the beginning of my deep and abiding love for fairy tale retellings and I remember thinking that is was so clever! It actually answered one of my long-term issues with the story of Cinderella: why does the she stay and slave for the step-family? If she’s simply accepting that this is her lot in life, it makes me think she’s passive and boring and why would I bother with that? And if she’s spunky and feisty, why doesn’t she just go off and do her own thing? This book actually gives answers to that question, and does so ingeniously.

Ella is an amazing character. She’s self-aware, honest about her faults but also of her virtues, and she looks at the world through open eyes. She’s practical, sometimes a little petty, wonderfully imaginative, and genuinely good hearted. Most of all, she’s strong-spirited. Her life has been shaped by the curse but she doesn’t let it define her. Or rather, she doesn’t let it run her. In everything she does, every person she encounters, the curse is a danger and a risk, but she works around that. She plays games with its limitations, testing it for loopholes or managing to frustrate the true intentions of the person giving the order. She constantly seeks for a way to break it. But she lives her life. She makes friends, she learns languages, and when forced to do something, she grimly gets through it and uses that experience down the road. She’s funny, a little silly, and painfully brave. And sometimes holds grudges. In other words, she’s very real, the kind of character who steps off the page and when I finish the book I’m always a little surprised that there isn’t a living breathing Ella sitting right next to me.

Most of the additional characters are well-rounded and dynamic, full of shades that make it difficult to say (for most) that they’re either good or evil. The charming prince can be stiff, formal, and unforgiving. But he also slides down stair rails, delights in someone who can make him laugh, and does unthinking kind deeds. Hattie, the elder step-sister, is a miserable little shrew and her mother, Dame Olga, a fatter and shriller version obsessed with money and clothing, but Olive, the younger step-sister, is charmingly simple. Stupid, yes, undeniably so, but there’s actually something a little sweet in her vapidity. She may be greedy but unlike her mother and sister, she isn’t cruel, either; she just lacks the mental capacity (and environment) to encourage her to better herself. Mandy, Ella’s cook and fairy-godmother, both delights and frustrates Ella. Mandy is bossy, straight-forward, protective, bold, loving, and refuses to practice Big Magics, leaving that sort of thing to the foolish Lucinda. She’s also intensely loyal and maybe a little vindictive. Even Ella’s father, Sir Peter, has flashes of promise within his stony parts. He’s greedy, manipulative, stubborn, with a large potential for violence, and doesn’t hesitate to cheat, swindle, or downright steal, nor does he think twice about auctioning his daughter off to the highest bidder, but there are times- tiny moments, just a spark gone before you can really see it too clearly- where you see the man Ella’s mother fell in love with. When he actually shows pride in his daughter, or delight in her company, without an ulterior motive.

This book is also just plain fun to read. Ella narrates, with the same spirit with which she approaches everything else. There are points where you’re actually laughing out loud at her wit and humor, but her pared down honesty also translates the griefs and disappointments. When she’s hungry, there’s a sharp climb in the amount of food-related descriptions. Then there are the languages. In addition to her native Kyrrian, Ella also has samplings of Gnomish, Ogrese, Giant(ese?), and Ayorthan, each of which has distinct rules and appearances and some of which are so bizarre you can’t help but laugh when you see them on the page.

This is a book that has gotten me through house-fires, first heartaches, school stresses, horrid co-workers or roommates, ill health, crap paychecks, sick cats, and so much. It is a delight to read and a joy to reread, and remains the foundation of my rereading library.

Until next time~

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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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