12-year-old Elodie is leaving her rural home and traveling to the city of Two Castles where her family expects her to be apprenticed to a weaver for ten years. But there are two things Elodie’s family doesn’t know. One is that Elodie has no intention of being apprenticed to a weaver. Instead, she wants to be a mansioner, which is basically an actor. (Her parents wouldn’t approve of this career.) The second thing that Elodie and her parents don’t know is that there are no more ten-year apprenticeships offered in the city of Two Castles. Instead, apprentices must pay to be trained. So, Elodie, who has no way to contact her parents, has landed in the big city with no job, no place to stay, and no prospects.
At first, Two Castles is overwhelming with all its fascinating new sights. As soon as she steps off the boat, Elodie meets a dragon, an ogre, and a cat that steals her money. Now penniless, and failing to get a spot with the mansioners, her only choice is to work as the dragon’s assistant. This involves tasks such as going about town to declare how wonderful the dragon is, helping an unpopular ogre throw a dinner party, looking for a lost dog, entertaining the king, and solving a murder mystery.
It takes a while for Gail Carson Levine’s A Tale of Two Castles (2011) to reveal its purpose. While Elodie is a delightful protagonist, her new city is fun to explore, and her job as a dragon’s apprentice is sometimes amusing, the events that finally kick off the main plotline occur well after the halfway mark (closer to two-thirds, in fact). At that point the story becomes a murder mystery (or at least an attempted murder mystery), and it’s slightly intriguing, but it was too little too late for me. Until then, it was hard to care about what was happening because events seemed random and pointless and, though Elodie was in a dire situation, we never felt any real danger, menace, or worry.
Something else I found annoying was that the dragon, an expert in critical thinking, was attempting to teach Elodie how to use deduction, induction, and common sense, but at the same time kept telling her that the solution to the murder mystery must be elegant. I don’t think this is a very good lesson in critical thinking. Trying to solve the mystery, Elodie keeps trying to think elegantly, as opposed to parsimoniously (a solution that relies on the fewest assumptions). Most readers probably won’t care about this but, as someone who actually tries to teach students to think critically, I found it frustrating. Solutions don’t need to be elegant – they just need to be correct.
On the other hand, A Tale of Two Castles has a good anti-prejudice (and perhaps anti-racism?) message for children and is often charming, quirky, and quaint. But, the pacing issue was insurmountable for me, making A Tale of Two Castles not completely satisfying.
The audio version, by Brilliance Audio, is read by Sarah Coomes who is convincing in this role. She speaks a little too slowly but I took care of that by increasing the listening speed.