Levine, author of the Newberry Honor book, Ella Enchanted, brings us a middle grade fantasy full of mystery, magic, and a few tart observations of human nature. For those of you who think she’s strictly a light-weight author, think again!
There’s a classic fairy-tale feel as Elodie, a country girl, sets off to seek her fortune. She heads to the big city, Two Castles, where her parents want her to apprentice as a weaver. Elodie has her own ideas. She wants to be a mansioner (an actress). Almost from the start, fate goes against her. Her money is stolen, and the mansioner doesn’t need any more apprentices. However, someone else has their own ideas about Elodie’s future.
That someone is Meenore, the dragon whose lair is set on the outskirts of Two Castles. Levine gives us an unique, inscrutable dragon here, yet with all the fun touches you’d expect from this author. For example, Elodie doesn’t know if her new “masteress” is a male or female dragon. This information is too personal to be bandied about, so all dragons are referred to as IT. Meenore is shrewd, exacting, fastidious, yet also generous. Relatively young and friendless, IT too has ambitions that have been denied. While Meenore spends ITs days in menial chores such as toasting cheese sandwiches and lighting blacksmith’s forges, ITs dream is to use ITs intellect and become a famous detective.
To say more would give away too much, so let me turn to the setting. Two Castles is so named, because there are two castles. One, in town, belongs to the despicable King Grenville and his daughter, Princess Renn. The other is home to an ogre, Jonty Um. Despite his fearsome reputation, Jonty Um is well mannered and his servants are devoted, while the locals barely hide their hatred for “Greedy Grenny.” Here, to me, was one of the most telling contrast, that the “normal” people in Two Castles are wary, thieving, deceptive, while the so-called monster is honorable and kind to all.
The story features a host of other interesting characters and draws on several traditional fairy tales, most notably “Puss in Boots.” Through it all, Elodie grows confident enough to choose her own path of loyalty and danger. In terms of subject matter, this book is solidly for middle grades (grades 4-6), with all violence occurring off-stage and only a hint of romance. However, I think kids up to 15 can enjoy this book with its fresh ideas and sense of humor. A Tale of Two Castles is highly recommended.