A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine, was published in 2011 by Harper.
Elodie journeys to the town of Two Castles to become a mansioner—an actress—but the master of the troupe turns her away. Brilliant dragon Meenore takes her in, then sends her on a dangerous mission within an ogre’s castle. There, disguised as a kitchen maid, she plays the role of a lifetime, pitted against a foe intent on murder. Black-and-white cats, a handsome cat trainer, a greedy king, a giddy princess, a shape-shifting ogre, a brilliant dragon…Elodie must discover which of them is kind, which is cruel, and, most of all which is the one who deserves her trust.
A Tale of Two Castles is just the sort of simple fantasy I love—enough worldbuilding so that the reader understands what’s going on, a smart, compelling protagonist who isn’t particularly gutsy or strong but still accomplishes things, and humor. There’s also an obvious shout-out to “Puss in Boots” all throughout the novel, though I wouldn’t call this a retelling at all.
I also liked the correlation between logic and emotion, where Meenore, in the beginning, scorns feelings and relies only on “induction and deduction and logic” but towards the end of the novel clearly has become fond of Elodie and uses those feelings in making decisions along with her logic. Levine might have been trying to make the point that logic without feeling makes one cold or perhaps the natural progression of things simply makes it seem that she did it purposefully, but either way, there’s a good deal here to discuss regarding the relationship between logic and emotion.
The plot is also a fun little mystery, with too many suspects and not enough clues until everything clicks into place. And, mild spoiler here, the suspect is one that is the most unsuspicious of them all, at least in my opinion, which makes the ending reveal delightfully surprising. Levine did a great job with her red herrings and speculations, having enough to make it realistic but not enough to make it seem over-the-top and contrived.
A Tale of Two Castles is delightful, with an intriguing mystery, interesting and unique characters, and solid worldbuilding. It was much better than I initially thought it would be, and a pleasant, fun read after the messy fantasies I’ve read lately. I haven’t read any of Levine’s works since The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but I’m glad I picked this one up.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
The count approached IT. “Three skewers, if you please.”
What about everyone in line? That was no true If you please. Clearly an ogre did what he liked, no matter the inconvenience to small folk.
“It’s isn’t fair!” burst out of me.
The silence seemed to crystallize.
Enh enh enh, IT laughed, possibly in anticipation of seeing me squeezed to death in one enormous hand.