Yesterday I finished A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine, and I suppose that since I've almost forgotten about it I shouldn't be too worried about getting it into the blog, but I am. Partly because my reaction to Levine's books is all over the map, and partly because my reaction to this book is all over the map.
For the record, I really like much of Levine's work. Loved Ella Enchanted; really liked Fairest; thought Ever was romantic and soppy except for the interesting take on gods; couldn't get into Two Princesses of Bamarre at all. The intended audience for her books ranges from middle grade to YA, so I'm sure that's part of the equation.
The interesting thing about this book is how many different reactions I had at the same time. At its core, the story is a mystery; one of the things I noticed most is that there's a LOT of detail piled into the storytelling. This serves a lot of purposes: it sets the narrator, Elodie, up as someone who is observant and intelligent, which is a big plot point and an important part of why we like her. It serves as some rich world-building. But, most interestingly, it prevents you from knowing which details are the ones that will be relevant to the mystery. If there are two horsemen riding past, a man with a basket of kittens, and a woman offering a bite of sausage to her father, which of these details might be relevant in who stole the ogre's dog?
On one hand, the world she build was great, with lots of fun details and richly imagined layers of culture. Actors are called mansioners, because their traveling caravans are like mansions with many rooms, and each color represents the tone of a scene (tragic scenes are set in the black mansion; love scenes in the green). Cats are considered good luck, so everyone has a few. A dragon's gender is no one's business but ITs own.
Elodie's family sends her to the city of Two Castles to apprentice, since they're too poor to pay for a place. Her plan is to run away and become a mansioner. Neither plan works out, and she finds herself in the employ of the city's only dragon. The dragon sells roasted skewers and advice, and Elodie's first job is to help the local ogre, Count Jonty Um, solve the petty thefts and poaching that have been going on at his estate.
Now, here's where we get into the trouble. This story was SO confusing. The mystery was hard to solve, because it was hard to figure out. There are so many strands of problems (thefts, dognapping, poaching, and others that come up later in the story), and how they tie together is unclear. There are almost no clues left for the reader (as far as I can tell), and honestly, even now I couldn't trace a timeline of who was doing what and why. All that rich and glorious detail made it even trickier to follow, and slowed down the pace of the story more than I wanted it to be.
Which is a shame, because I loved Elodie, and Meenore the dragon, and Count Jonty Um. One of the big themes of the book is that you never know who is or isn't what they appear to be, so even the bad guys have good layers (though the good guys don't have a lot of bad ones). And the mystery of who can be trusted--which is as important to the story as the mystery of who was committing the crimes--is also sprung on you.
I think my mixed reaction is based around the idea that I like the message of the book--in real life, the truth doesn't broadcast itself with sly looks and foreshadowing; the important details aren't the only ones that jump out at you. But it made for a book that is paced and structured in an unfamiliar and, in the end, kind of uncomfortable way. Reading this book was a lot of fun, but I didn't really follow it very well. And when the reading level is 7 or so, that's kind of startling.