A Tale of Two Castles
A handsome cat trainer, black-and-white cats, thieves on four legs and two, suspicious townsfolk, a greedy king, a giddy princess, a shape-shifting ogre, a brilliant dragon. Which is the villainous whited sepulcher?
Elodie journeys to the town of Two Castles to become a mansioner—an actress—but luck is against her. She is saved from starvation by the dragon Meenore, who sends her on a dangerous mission inside the ogre's castle. There, disguised as a kitchen maid at an ogre's feast, she finds herself cast in the role of a lifetime and pitted against a foe intent on murder.
Newbery Honor author Gail Carson Levine weaves an entrancing tale of a fearsome ogre, a dragon detective, and a remarkable heroine, who finds friendship where she least expects it, learns that there are many ways to mansion, and discovers that goodness and evil come in all shapes and sizes.
A Tale of Two Castles fits into that mold; it is a revisionist, postmodern telling of Puss in the Boots. The ogre who can change into any animal is there, as is the miller's son who inherited no property and uses his cat to make money dishonestly. However, the good guys in the fairy tale are the bad guys here, and vice versa. The ogre is vulnerable to cats, peculiarly so. Apparently, cats wish so hard for him to become a mouse that he cannot help doing so. I think that's ridiculous, because if it works for cats, a whole bunch of people, if they could agree, ought to be able to wish him into a particular form as well.
Another thing that annoyed me about this story was its repetitiveness. There were certain words and concepts that Levine kept using, so much so that it rather felt like some sort of lesson intended to teach children the meaning of terms like 'whited sepulchre.' A quirk of her fantasy world was that dragons were meant to be genderless, at least so far as humans are allowed to know, so they are to be called IT. Not It or it, IT. Ugh! The dragon's laugh also irritated me: 'enh enh enh.'
The dragon was still, perhaps, a better character than Elodie. She does not seem to have been very well conceived, as some of her traits are remarkably inconsistent. She begins as the starry-eyed arrival, a stupid farm girl, with no skill for anything but acting. She is trusting of people who, from my point of view, are obviously hiding something and mistrusting of those who only want to help her. The only scenes where I liked her at all were those where she mansioned (especially when she acted out Thisbe with an apple as her Pyramus).
The moment that would have made me throw the book across the room, if I weren't reading it as an e-book on my computer, was when suddenly Elodie, country bumpkin, knew everything about poisons ever: "I sniffed my bowl. The scent was faint but detectable: eastern wasp powder...The poison acted in an hour or two, caused chills, fever, tremors, a tight throat, death" (190). Really? There was no attempt at an explanation for why Elodie would ever know this.
Also awkward was Elodie's relationship with the ogre. She says that she loves him, but I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a friend love or a they're going to get married someday love. I also don't know how that would work and I have no idea how old he is. So, I was mostly just creeped out by the possibility.
A Tale of Two Castles had a lot of possibility, but was very poorly executed, with uneven characters, use of diction that felt like a vocabulary lesson, and unclear resolution.