Elodie, the dragon Masteress Meenore, and the ogre County Jonty Um are all on their way to Elodie’s home island of Lahnt. Just five weeks before, Elodie left for the town of Two Castles with nothing but a single copper in her purse, and now she is returning a professional dragon detective’s assistant and friend to a count! Elodie has barely set foot on Lahnt before she learns that it is in terrible danger. The Replica, a statue that keeps a deadly volcano from erupting, has been stolen from its mountain home. If the Replica isn’t found in three days, a mountain will be destroyed and its inhabitants will be killed. And when Elodie is left without her companions, she has to use her wits to try to unravel a tangled web of lies and save her island home.
I didn’t think Stolen Magic was half as good as A Tale of Two Castles. It has that “tacked-on sequel due to popular demand” feel to it, where the author tries to recapture the essence of the first novel and fails. The plot tries to be a decent mystery but there are so many characters introduced all at once that it’s hard to follow and the world seems small and cramped compared to the first novel. There’s also way too many logical leaps done at the very beginning, with Elodie immediately jumping to “The Replica’s been stolen!” even though there’s really no believable way she could have reached that conclusion as quickly as she did. In addition, the entire book pretty much takes place in one area, and most of the time the characters are simply talking at a table.
Even Levine seemed to realize how inactive the plot was, and so interspersed the mystery aspect with snapshots of Jonty Um, andeventually Meenore, helping the inhabitants of Lahnt escape to safety. But those are so obviously placed there to increase the pace that it makes the book seem sloppily put together. It also makes it so that the reader knows some things before the characters, which I never like because that sort of anticipation as the reader waits for the characters to catch up is rarely done well. It tends to become more irritation than anticipation.
Stolen Magic is, in a way, aptly named, because it steals the magic found in the first book right out of existence and turns it into a trudge of a mystery that’s only slightly interesting. All the “bee” characters introduced all at once made things hard to follow, there was too much talking across tables and too many back-and-forth accusations, and the whole thing felt rushed and poorly done. Sequels written years after the first book are rarely done well, because they often tend to reek of fan service and poorly-conceived thinking and plotting. And, unfortunately, it looks like even Gail Carson Levine, as divine as some of her books are, is not immune to this sort of blunder.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Might the thief escape in your absence, Madam, now that the blizzard has ended?”
“He wouldn’t get far on foot in this snow. If he wanted a horse, he’d have to come here.”
“He or she wouldn’t get far. If he or she wanted…Lodie, can you forgo sleep tonight?”
She nodded. She’d done so before for IT.
“High Brunka, can you show Lodie in secret where the Replica had been kept?”
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.