Book Review: Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George

November 16, 2011 at 10:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Every Tuesday, Castle Glower changes. Sometimes a new room, a staircase, or a hidden passage, and Princess Celie’s out to map them all. When her parents and eldest brother disappear during that brother’s graduation, it’s up to Celie, Rolf, and Liliah- and, of course, Castle Glower- to protect their land and their people from those within and without who would try to claim power. The bad guys? They’ll never know what hit them.

I love Jessica Day George. I love her Middle Grade adventures, I love her teen fairy tales, I love her books, so when I heard about this one coming out, I was ridiculously excited.

Do you have any idea how happy I am when that excitement is merited?


It’s adorable and sweet and heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding and bold and just utterly amazing. I couldn’t put it down, and when I got to the end, I really wanted nothing more than to turn back to the beginning and start again.

Celie is an amazing character. She’s the youngest of the Glower children, bright and inquisitive and endlessly resourceful. She has a hunch that the semi-sentient castle is fond of her, and certainly the rest of her family thinks so as well, and she’s dedicated herself to creating an atlas of all the changes, expansions, and acquisitions that the castle has given itself during her lifetime. Wherever she goes, she’s bound to have her notebook and colored pencils there to properly document the course of things. She knows the hiding places, the shortcuts, and when the castle tries to tell her something, she knows to listen. What I love most about Celie is how well-developed she is across such a broad range. She can be relentlessly, reckless brave, but she’s also scared, a little girl who’s parents and brother are missing, someone who’s threatened and vulnerable and determined to stand strong in the face of it. She’s loyal and appealing, bone sweet with a bit of a mean streak (totally justified, but wonderfully vindictive), and more than anything she throws herself fully into life.

Just as much as Celie, Castle Glower is a character, strong and defined in its own right. It’s compassionate and brave, protective of those it calls its own, and a staunch defender it what it feels is right. It knows the needs of its people better than anyone else can- and chooses its own kings. Rolf, the current heir, isn’t the oldest child or even the oldest son, but he’s the castle’s choice. They found that out when the castle moved his bedroom closer to the throne room. If the castle doesn’t like someone, their rooms get smaller and smaller, farther and farther away, while those the castle does like have spacious, comfortable rooms convenient to a life at court.

Seriously? I want to live in Castle Glower. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t. A place like that with endless possibilities and limitless opportunities for exploration? It’s countless childhood dreams come true. The nine-year-old me that cried when I realized I’d mapped the entire neighborhood (including the poison ivy laced woods I wasn’t supposed to go into) was drooling over the descriptions of the castle.

The cast is gorgeously drawn, rich and varied. The villains are appropriately sinister, but also just a bit comical. You never know quite who to trust, as mysteries and betrayals abound, but there are some who can always be counted upon- for example, the siblings can always count on each other. There are distinct cultures, even dialects, which can be funny in the occasional misunderstandings but also lend a sense of menace.

As king’s heir, fourteen-year-old Rolf is a beautiful blend of responsibility and mischeif, proof that the Crown Prince can still be a prize fool when the mood takes him. His swings through anger and petulance and vindictiveness are completely believable, but they balance against the more prevalent aspects of his personality, like his humor and his hope, his protectiveness of his sisters and his willingness to indulge (mostly) older sister Lilah’s need to mother them when she’s stressed. He hasn’t lost himself in the gravity of his position, and he’s willing to take big risks for worthwhile results. Consistently through the story, he’s Celie’s older brother, even when circumstances are forcing him to be so much more.

Lilah, the older sister and beauty of the family, has a tendency to overmother things (especially when she’s stressed) but she’s also a vivacious flirt, one who doesn’t feel obliged to look purely at social status when making such decisions. She’s responsible and ladylike (proper, would be the term that comes to mind) but though she has very real fears and hesitations about some of the ventures, she finds the courage to do them anyway. Because they’re important, because they’re necessary. Because they’re what needs to be done.

And her sometimes-suitor Pogue is charming, flirtatious, and bone-deep loyal. I really liked Pogue, and he was ample proof that the title of nobility isn’t required for the existence of the virtue.

There is so much more I could say about this book, so much I want to say about this book, but I’m not going to. I don’t want to take away any of the delightful discoveries Castle Glower has in store for you.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George, available now in both hardcover and e-format.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, by Jessica Day George

July 13, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Without a name, a child cannot be baptized, and trolls have been known to steal unbaptized children, but when her mother refuses to name her over her displeasure at bearing another girl, the baby becomes simply the pika, or girl. Her favorite brother Hans Peter calls her Lass. One day, however, an act of mercy to a white hart gives her a secret name and the ability to speak with animals. It’s only the beginning of the Lass’ adventure, for shortly after, a white bear comes to their home and insists she spend a year living in his palace. In this heartfelt retelling of an old Nordic tale, the Lass will follow her heart east of the moon and west of the sun to set things to rights, and along the way she’ll encounter hope and despair, kindess and cruelty, compassion and selfishness, all in a world so much bigger than the simple woodcutter’s house she calls home.

I’ve probably mentioned before how much I love retellings. There’s just something amazing to me about taking a story that’s already well loved and making it even more, of personalizing it and- in the case of some stories- making it more accessible. Most people don’t know the old Nordic tales. Not just the sweeping sagas but the simpler folk tales tend to get missed in favor of stories that are easier to find, the more traditional fairy tales. I grew up familiar with the story this is based on (East of the Sun, West of the Moon) because my mother’s family is Swedish and Norwegian. Her great-aunts swore in Swedish, cooked with measurements like pinch, dash, and skosh, and were six foot tall busty blondes who lived actively and energetically into their late 90’s. They told my grandmother and mother, my grandmother and mother told me, so I grew up on this story and always loved it. It was like a Scandinavian Beauty and the Beast, but SO much cooler.

This is a story that unfolds slowly, that really builds the world around you so you feel the ache of a winter that’s lasted far too long. The Lass is the youngest of nine children, each of them distinct in their own ways, each of them with different sets of expectations laid upon them by their mother Frida. She’s closest to Hans Peter, the eldest, who was away for many years on a voyage and came back greatly changed. He spends his days by the hearth now, carving figurings he soon burns, weighed down by sorrow and a haunting experience he won’t speak of even to the Lass.

It takes strength to thrive within emotional neglect, and the Lass shows that strength again and again. She isn’t unloved- her father and Hans Peter both adore her, and her siblings to varying degrees; even Frida would probably admit to loving her youngest if pressed- but despite the dangers presented by having no name, she doesn’t let herself become crippled by fear or doubt. When adventure presents itself, along with a way to help her family, she takes it. Most girls wouldn’t go off with an enormous bear that would as soon eat you as not, but she does, and she adjusts to the strange life in the northern palace with her spellbound companions.

At first this seems like a story about gaining- gaining a name, gaining chances and advancement- but it’s also a story about loss. It’s not just the family she left behind but also the sense of loss that pervades her new companions and the stories written into the ice walls of the palace. Sorrow weaves through her companions, sorrow without hope of surcease, with a painful dignity won by the sheer press of years and experience- a sorrow much like that which weighs down her brother.

It’s also a mystery, a story of clues and secrets and the careful, cautious search to unravel them and piece everything together. Clearly a talking bear who lives in a palace with bound servants unlike any human form presents a puzzle, as does the appearance of a strange man in her bed each night who makes no move to touch or harm her but also refuses to sleep elsewhere. The Lass has to be careful about it- the forces at work within these puzzles show no hesitation to punish the creatures under its thrall, and it’s incredibly painful to the Lass to know that others are dying as a direct result of her efforts.

The journey that unfolds is beautiful, not just in a physical sense of the world the Lass explores, but the people and creatures she encounters on the way. Everything is connected, sometimes in a delicate, tenuous fashion that could break with the slightest stress, and sometimes with chains so solid it seems impossible they could ever break. Each grace she’s given, every kindness, gives her greater strength, and each obstacle forces her to use that newly won strength. It may be slow but it’s far from stagnant, and every step of the way stirs the blood.

There’s an incredible journey, joy and loss, new friends, sacrifices born of love like no other, and the strength that comes of a lifetime of untenable odds. This is a beautiful story, a masterful retelling, and a book to lose yourself in.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Princess series, by Jessica Day George

March 21, 2011 at 9:17 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Fairy tales have been told and retold, adapted to different places and times, even different worlds, but every now and then, we’re lucky enough to stumble upon versions that are truly fantastic, that take the original fairy tale, respect it in every eay, and yet somehow manage to make it their own. Jessica Day George‘s Princess series falls into this category.

In Princess of the Midnight Ball, we’re introduced to a young soldier named Galen Werner, a bit adrift after the war that has defined his life finally ends. In search of work, he ventures to the capital of Westfalin, where his uncle is the head gardener of the extravagant Queen’s Garden. It seems, however, that all is not well within the palace. Every night, despite being locked into their rooms, the twelve princesses emerge in the morning with their dancing slippers worn straight through. The king’s offer to marry one of his daughters to whoever solves the mystery brings princes in from all across the Ionian continent. Then the deaths begin, and Galen finds himself pitted against an ancient magic to protect the princesses he serves and, in one case, loves.

In its sequel, Princess of Glass, ties between the Ionian countries have been strained by the deaths of so many princes, even after the mystery has been solved and Westfalin formally absolved of any guilt in the deaths. To foster accord and peace, a grand exchange of royal children is planned to arrange fresh marriages, friendships, and treaties. Poppy, sarcastic and sharp with less tact and more unladylike habits than her father could wish, is sent to Breton to stay with her mother’s cousins. Though she loathes dancing after the nightly terror of dancing for the King Under Stone, she may have to take to the dance floor to help solve the mystery of a hapless maid with beautiful glass slippers and the dark spells that make every male fall in love with her.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses has always been one of my favorite stories, and Cinderella of course is a classic, but Jessica Day George makes these stories uniquely hers. The details of life in this more or less Renaissance Europe are beautiful and the characters very real. Though we all know basically how the stories end, we’re still holding our breaths to make sure everything will turn out right for the characters we’ve come to love and cheer for.

Different version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses have different reasons for why the princesses dance all night every night. In some, they’re under a spell to make them cold and indifferent. In some, they’re simply selfish. In others, there’s a wager, in others it’s all fun and games, and in yet others it’s a punishment. I love that in this version, they’re paying the debt of someone else’s bad bargain. They feel each new burden most keenly, but their strength in supporting each other, in seeing the debt paid, is inspiring. The bruise-like colors of the world of King Under Stone are haunting, withering, so it’s a joy to be able to see the brighter pockets- like bouquets of flowers with knitted ties.

And the part of me that was in heaven working in a craft store keeps giggling and clapping her hands at how essential knitting is to both stories in these re-imaginings- complete with knitting patterns in the back.

In this version of Cinderella, there’s no wicked stepmother or ugly stepsisters. Instead, there’s a darkly benevolent godmother who dotes on a rich girl turned disaster maid and offers her the chance to win the hand of the visiting prince of Danelaw. Glass is so often used as a symbol of clarity and truth; I love that here we get to see its opposite, that it can distort, that we can see only what we wish to see. The physical similarities of the three girls, the way they can stand as reflections of each other, should create confusion, but instead serves to bring their personalities into greater relief.

A little while ago, Jessica Day George hinted on Twitter that she was working on a chapter of Princess of the Something Something and I just about died. Even without knowing which sister (personally I’m hoping for Daisy in Venenzia) or which fairy tale (so many to wonder about!), I got so excited I could hardly see straight. No word on release date- I’d gues 2012 at the earliest- but just the fact that there will be more makes me a very happy kitty.

If you love fairy tales but haven’t read these books, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. They’re available in ebook and hardcover; Princess of the Midnight Ball is also available in paperback, with Princess of Glass to follow this summer. Do not miss out on these wonderful re-imaginings.

Until next time~

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