There are some authors who only have one really great book in them, and more and more I’m starting to think that Gail Carson Levine is one of those. Although I adored Ella Enchanted when I read it back in the day, every time I’ve tried a book by Levine since I’ve been ultimately disappointed, and A Tale of Two Castles is no exception. The book has all the elements of a book that I should love–a shape-shifting misunderstood ogre, a dragon, a plucky heroine trying to make her way in the world–but something about the story simply falls flat. I’m finding it hard to nail down exactly why, but the characters feel shallow and as a result the action quickly started to lose my interest.
I almost gave up on the book about half way through, but forced myself to finish it since the thing was short (this is definitely a children’s book) and although they continually failed to really grab hold of me I did like the characters.
The book isn’t bad, but it’s nothing to get excited over. If you have a kid who likes fantasy and doesn’t have anything else to read, you could do worse than Tale of Two Castles, but I’d recommend getting it from the library. This is probably not a book you are going to want to reread over and over.
Elodie sets off from her provincial family to live in the city of Two Castles. Her parents think that she will be apprenticed to a weaver, but she secretly has plans to become a mansioner (actor). Her parents warn her to stay away from the monsters in Two Castles; apparently an ogre inhabits one of the castles, and a dragon lives in the town.
On the trip across the water she meets a kind lady named Goodwife Celeste and an animal handler named Dess and learns that lots of people in the town keep cats as protection agains the ogre because cats can force an ogre to shapechange into a mouse (which they then will summarily hunt).
When she reaches town, she finds herself attracted to a handsome young man named Thiel, but his cat steals her only copper, leaving her penniless. She wanders around and talks briefly with the dragon (dragons do not reveal their gender, so it calls itself Masteress Meenore), encounters the ogre Count Jonty Um, and eventually makes her way to the mansioner’s abode where she is refused a spot. As she walks dejectedly away, though, Meenore offers her employment as the dragon’s assistant.
In short order, she finds herself in the ogre’s castle trying to figure out who is trying to attack him (where by “attack”, I mean “steal his dog, thus leaving him vulnerable to cats”). She runs into “Greedy Grenny”, the gluttonous king, his addlepated daughter Princess Ren, and a bunch of other secondary characters. Thiel crops up just about everywhere, because he’s a master thief who steals from just about everyone. She also learns the the ogre is a kind-hearted being who just wants the townsfolk to like him.
Eventually, Jonty Um is forced into his mouse form by a bunch of cats at a dinner he put on to help the townsfolk get over their fear, the king is poisoned, and Elodie is imprisoned on charges of being a spy sent to poison the king and dispose of Jonty Um.
She successfully figures out that the real villain is Princess Renn, however, and with the help of her mansioner’s talents escapes her imprisonment and warns the king. Jonty Um shows up out of nowhere, Meenore approves of her use of deduction, and everything ends well. Thiel ends up marrying the princess, and Jonty Um, Meenore, and Elodie decide to take a trip across the ocean to visit a land where ogres are more common.