Castle of Shadows, by Ellen Renner, was published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin.
Ever since the Queen mysteriously disappeared and the King went mad five years ago, eleven-year-old Princess Charlie has lived a wild and mostly unsupervised life in the country of Quale, running amok through the castle instead of following affairs of state. Now revolution whispers through the air, and Charlie is powerless to stop it. Then she discovers a clue: a desperate, unfinished letter scribbled years before by the missing Queen. Charlie doesn’t understand the danger her mother writes of, but she does know that she absolutely must be found—together, they can surely save the King and the kingdom. So plucky Charlie embarks on a quest to track down her mother, armed with the precious scrap of paper and with Tobias, the gardener’s boy, as an unlikely ally. Putting away her tattered old clothes, she must deal with games of political intrigue, the rebels’ rough-laid schemes, and the prime minister’s sudden interest in the forgotten princess’s well-being. And every step closer to the Queen pulls Charlie deeper into an entangling web of lies and secrets, where nothing is as it seems and people are not who they say.
I relatively enjoyed Castle of Shadows, though there were parts of it that made me sigh. The book is what you might expect from a “castle/monarch fallen into a bad state” plot, complete with a wild and untrained princess, villainous servants, and absent parents. The ambience of it does appropriately fit the name; the castle is always described in gloomy and cold terms and nothing about it brings forth the image of a bright, friendly castle, such as in Jessica Day George’s Castle Glower series. There’s enough mystery and intrigue and villainy to fit that tone, and the main villain, at least, is a complex one. You never quite know what he actually thinks or what his actual plan is, and he has that air of simple regret that makes it hard to violently hate him as one might the housekeeper, O’Dair, and her mustache-twirling ways.
I’m not overly fond of Charlie and her character type; I don’t like “wild” characters or ones that do stupid things because they think they know better than everyone else around them. But she does improve over time, and she does have a few flaws to even out all her impulsive actions that usually turn out all right for her. She’s described as being “afraid of the dark” but her fear is actually claustrophobia; she’s fine running around the castle at night, but she can’t handle enclosed spaces. Or perhaps it’s the complete absence of light she fears, rather than the ambiguous dark?
The plot is fairly complex, though it’s ruined a bit by the actions of O’Dair and Watch, who act a little too absurdly and a little too one-dimensionally to be taken completely seriously as villains. But, of course, there must be villainous servants in these types of stories to add an extra layer of tension and another obstacle for our plucky princess to overcome before confronting the real villain.
Castle of Shadows has a fitting name, as Renner uses description quite effectively to really give the sense of a shadowy, eerie setting. The plot and Charlie herself aren’t particularly original, and the plot in particular, though complex and twisty, is marred by the presence of two-bit villains such as O’Dair. Also, I’m not sure I like the ending—everything ends a bit too neatly and perfectly. However, I enjoyed a majority of the book, and its flaws are nothing too glaring and distracting to spoil it much.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Where did you find this? Have you shown it to anyone else?”
The look in his eyes scared her. “I-I found it in a book.” Why was he so upset? “A book I took from the library. I remember my mother reading it to me just before she disappeared. And of course I haven’t shown it to anyone else.”
“Good! Do not! Promise me. Let me keep this letter for you…or, better yet, let me destroy it—” He made a movement towards the hob and its glowing fire.