book reviews / fantasy

Book Review: A Tale of Two Castles


Gail Carson Levine

YA Fantasy

On one level this plot is simple. 12yo Elodie leaves home for Two Castles to begin an apprenticeship.  On another level, it’s full of snowballing complications. Elodie lacks the coin to purchase the apprenticeship she really wants—mansioning (acting).  She takes a temporary position as assistant to a kabob-chef/detective-dragon, a clever creature she doesn’t fully trust. Two Castles is full of dangers, from thieving cats to poisoners to ogres. And then Elodie is thrust into the middle of a mystery—and possibly murder.

The book’s biggest question is, Are things and people as they appear? 12yo Elodie, far from home and forced to rely on her own wits, is a great vehicle for this exploration. Her parents’ advice from the moment she leaves home is to “beware the whited sepulcher,” someone who looks pleasant but hides ill intentions. Learning to survive in a new culture with dangerous creatures and political intrigue makes for a great coming-of-age/mystery story. The characters of the detective-dragon and the polite but hated ogre-count are standouts. The storyline of learning to think for yourself dovetails nicely with subtle messages against racial and cultural prejudice.

And I’ll never underestimate a cat again. Gail Carson Levine reveals several potent talents I can believe our feline friends have, though they have not been documented until now.

image by zirconicusso at

image by zirconicusso at

Elodie is a brave, bright, and well-rooted young protagonist. She has a young woman’s completely plausible blend of big and small dreams, from becoming a famous mansioner to eating a tasty skewer of cheese and toast.

Gail Carson Levine builds several scenes of tension well. Will Elodie’s dragon “masteress” prove her greatest teacher and ally, or will IT eat her? A simple gross-out scene where Elodie trains to pour wine for a king had my heart racing with stress.

The book provides suspense, a colorful world, and a satisfying quest for identity.

I listened to this as an audiobook, voiced by Sarah Coomes. She does a nice job keeping the voices distinct, especially through use of inflection. I have to confess it took me a while to adjust to the accent she uses for Elodie, our narrator. It’s a beautiful Scottish, but I had to concentrate to be sure I understood the words. Young American listeners with even less exposure to Scottish accents than me will either be charmed by the accent or frustrated by it. After all, it’s not like a book, where you can see the action written plain before you on the page, and deduce the accent from the shorter paragraphs of dialogue. Nor is it like a movie, where you have visuals to help you reason out the meaning of accented dialogue in context.

Of course if you are a young listener from Scotland, you’ll probably be delighted.

Where Coome’s voice is most suited to the part is in its youthfulness. There is a kind of transparency and wonder in her high-pitched voice (but not annoyingly high) that fits our 12yo heroine.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 skewers of cheese.

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