Brief synopsis: Elodie leaves her home island of Lahnt to the city Two Castles, so named for the two castles within it, that of the king of Lepai (King Grenville III, aka Greedy Grenny) and that of the ogre Count Jonty Um. Elodie’s parents intend for her to apprentice to a weaver. Elodie, on the other hand, is determined to apprentice to a mansioner, to learn the skill and art of acting. Upon her arrival in Two Castles, however, Elodie’s few coins are stolen: she cannot afford any apprenticeship, and in any case she is refused by the very master mansioner she wishes to impress.
Happily, or perhaps not so happily, the dragon Meenore, mastress of induction, deduction, and the fine art of toasting cheese on bread, is in need of an assistant. Elodie is not at all sure she can trust Meenore, nor does her first significant assignment, that of protecting Count Jonty Um, bode well. It is hard to know who to trust when every person, human or otherwise, tells a slightly different tale.
I was tempted to write about Gail Carson Levine’s A Tale of Two Castles during fairy tale retellings month, because this detective/mansioner novel is a loose retelling of “Puss in Boots,” inasmuch as a tale that is so completely its own narrative complete with utterly different protagonist and plot from and irrespective of its source can be called a retelling. (On the one hand, this is “Puss in Boots”; on the other hand, calling this story a retelling seems to suggest that the original is a major part of the story instead of hardly figuring at all in a story wholly different from the original.)
This novel’s take on dragons is strikingly different. For one thing, Meenore is “covered in brown-and-orange scales except for a wrinkled brown belly that hung almost to the ground;” in a word, “hideous” (p. 41). Meenore’s sole physical beauty is ITs wings:
mosaic[s] of flat triangles, each tinted a different hue, no color exactly the same. Lines of sinew held the triangles together, as lead holds the glass in a stained-glass window. The tinted skin, in every shade of pink, blue, yellow, and violet, was gossamer thin. I saw raindrops bead on the other side. (p. 55-56)
For another thing, dragons, as Elodie is reminded before she leaves home, are addressed as IT,
“never him or her or he or she.”
I nodded. Only a dragon knows IT’s gender. (p. 2)
Unsurprisingly, inquisitive Elodie wonders about which gender Meenore is. She observes the dragon’s every gesture and change in intonation, assigning a gender to each behaviour in an attempt to discern her masteress’s sex, with very mixed results. She has, however, a lot to learn about dragons, and Masteress Meenore, with varying degrees of patience, teaches her as IT teaches her how to be a useful assistant to a dragon who “induce[s] and deduce[s] flawlessly, but occasionally…forget[s] common sense” (p. 144). In a wonderful instance of unconscious prejudice being slowly overcome, Elodie becomes more sensitive to common false assumptions and “unwarranted conclusions” (p. 83) and more intellectually rigorous in her beliefs –
IT stretched ITs nect and aimed a puff of fire skyward. The flame guttered out before reaching the ground. “Because dragons have fire, we’re believed to be hot-tempered.”
IT did have a temper.
“Everyone has a temper, Lodie.” (p. 148)
– at length concluding that Meenore’s sex doesn’t matter; her masteress is IT until IT chooses otherwise. (I would like to know what genderfluid readers think of Meenore and of Elodie’s reactions to Meenore.) Meenore’s impeccable logic seems to be an individual rather than a species-specific trait.
Choice, in fact, is a primary concern of the novel. Prejudice is a choice. One’s career is a choice. One’s friends – the people in whom one trusts – are a choice. Even integrity, which is to say one’s character, is a choice. Meenore has some sharp things to say about artistic integrity and responsibility when a mansioner tries to evade admitting to stirring up feeling against the count:
“Young Elodie, my audience is in a mood for monsters. Meenore, would you grill white cheese if your customers preferred yellow?”
“I can turn white to yellow with my flame, and a mansioner as skilled as you can turn anything to anything.” (p. 250-251)
Who is the true monster, then? Readers of Levine’s other books won’t be surprised to learn that the “monsters” are not – necessarily – what they seem. The ogre, large and loud and easily capable of killing any number of humans, is as eager to learn as Elodie is, kind-hearted and desirous of proving that he is not the killer the town says. The dragon, who might devour one friendless girl with no one the wiser, takes the trouble to educate her into usefulness, even if IT resents having to pay an apprentice out of ITs treasured hoard. The princess, generous and friendly despite her unpredictable mind, is hardly a stereotypical prize bride. And the charming youngest miller’s son is proof positive that handsome is as handsome does. (Sorry if that spoils anything, but it was obvious from early on.)
The monkey scene is slightly clumsy. It seems to exist largely to assure readers of Count Jonty Um’s benevolence and to evoke empathy for him; however, it strains credibility that the count would trust Elodie so completely on so short an acquaintance, and the ending of that scene is oddly abrupt.
What doesn’t strain credibility in the least is the pain Elodie takes to fit in as a city dweller. As a would-be mansioner, Elodie constantly marks the subtle behaviours of others, storing them in her memory for later use; she is therefore also keenly aware of what others think of her, or what she imagines others think of her. She adjusts her accent. She learns tricks to avoid being a thief’s victim. She is determined to acquire a cap, though at home only married women wore caps – except in the winter, when everybody donned them. As a poor country girl in the city, Elodie experiences more subtle forms of prejudice, and develops strategies to avoid being known as “other.” Her behaviour modification and her love of mansioning underscore the thematic contrast of seeming and of being in this enjoyable mystery.
I will remember this for my mansioning and forever: the smallness of me, the hugeness of them, these two creatures, each with teeth the size of ax blades, sharing fruit, the meekest of food. (p. 102)
Other delights? The descriptions of animals Elodie had never seen before, which readers will recognize as a giraffe, a zebra, a camel, and a hyena. The mention of tales which form the background fabric for this story, tales both well-known (“Toads and Diamonds,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Theseus and the Minotaur”) and fictional (“The Tale of Princess Rosette”).* Elodie’s observations on the effects of wealth. The heartstring-plucking, utterly unfair (because he should not have to put himself in danger to remove prejudice) risks taken by that most hated count in his attempts to dissipate the townspeople’s fear of him.
I like this story. And I just found out that there is a companion book, Stolen Magic, so if you’ll excuse me…
*At least, I believe this story is fictional.