Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Castle of Shadows

Castle of Shadows by Ellen Renner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Originally published Orchard Books, 2010
390 pages
MG; Fantasy
4/5 stars

Source: Received an ARC from Amazon Vine and an e-ARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I'm kind of ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, I enjoyed myself while I was reading it, trying to puzzle out the dark secrets of some of the characters and enjoying reading about the kingdom of Quale, a fictionalized England in the late nineteenth or maybe early twentieth century.  Five years ago, the queen disappeared, the king went mad, and Princess Charlie's care was given over to the cruel Mrs. O'Dair. Now rumors of revolution and war swirl and Charlie must embark on a quest to find and bring her mother home, with the aid of Tobias, the gardener's boy.  But now that I'm finished, I'm not enthusiastic. I'm not entirely sure what the reason is but I have some ideas.

Fair or not fair, when you read a book, you compare it to other books you've read, in the same genre, by the same author, etc. This is a middle-grade fantasy so I compared it to Tuesdays at the Castle (such a fun setting for that book and both books have castle in the title) and Liesl and Po (girl is mistreated but escapes and goes on quest with boy).  And the best way I can describe my feelings is that those books had magic and this book did not. Not magic as in a plot point but as in casting a spell on me while I was reading.

Another disappointment was that I wanted a magical castle but this one is very appropriately a castle of shadows, filled with secrets, disappointments, and unhappiness. Gloominess seemed to pervade every aspect without enough lightness to balance the story to my taste. This is obviously a very personal opinion but there may be other people out there who agree.

I would say that a third part of the lack of love is the characters. Charlie is the main character, told through third-person narrative. I don't know if I'm spoiled by all of the first-person narration in YA but it seems like that often helps me connect to a character better. Charlies is eleven and frequently acts her age, especially in her attempts to annoy Tobias. Tobias is only a year older but seems far more, perhaps due to his hard life. As for the other characters, they had some life but did not seem fully developed. They had a few traits to their personalities but seemed overall one-dimensional, with good or evil intentions and no ambiguity. I'm also supremely disappointed in the lack of character development for the Queen; I still cannot understand why she took the actions she did.

Overall: An okay fairy-tale story without the magic of the best MG fantasies I've read.

Cover: I really like the cover-the drawing is super cute. I do not like Tobias' hat though because it looks more like he is balancing a book on his head. I also loved the typeface in Garamond Premiere Pro, especially the frequent use of the letter "Q".


  1. I'm starting to really adore middle Grade reads now, so OF COURSE this one is going on my TBR list! It sounds like such a sweet, character-driven story. Even though it was really gloomy, I think my adoration for Charlie will overshadow that! ;)

    Awesome review, B! And I actually love it when reviews tell me what tense the story is told in -- it's always nice to know beforehand! :) <3

  2. This is SUCH a helpful review! I'm partway through this (she just broke into her mother's office), but I put it down about a month ago and I've been conflicted about whether or not I should pick it up again before it expires.

    It looks like it has so much potential (I also unconsciously had Tuesdays at the Castle in my mind), but it's kind of slow and gloomy and I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. But I want it to be good.

    But I think your review has helped me make peace with my DNF. I know just what you mean about a lack of magic. I don't think I want to try reading this on my computer now. Thank you so much for your thoroughly helpful review!


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