Review posted October 26, 2011.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2011. 232 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2011: #1 Children's Fiction
I always wish for fantasy books to get some Newbery glory. It's my favorite genre, and although some win, some years outstanding books get passed over. This year, the fantasy book I'm rooting for is Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George.
Okay, it's got some tough competition in the form of Okay For Now, by Gary Schmidt. Tuesdays at the Castle is much lighter fare, not covering big, heavy issues that come up in Okay for Now. However, what Tuesdays at the Castle does, providing a light, intriguing fantasy tale for middle grade readers, it does exceptionally well.
It's a story of a medieval-type world with a princess at the center of the tale, yes. But the magical setting is highly unusual and delightfully different:
Whenever Castle Glower became bored, it would grow a new room or two. It usually happened on Tuesdays, when King Glower was hearing petitions, so it was the duty of the guards at the front gates to tell petitioners the only two rules the Castle seemed to follow.
Rule One: the Throne Room was always to the east. No matter where you were in the castle, if you kept heading east you would find the Throne Room eventually. The only trick to this was figuring out which way east was, especially if you found yourself in a windowless corridor. Or the dungeon.
This was the reason that most guests stuck with Rule Two: if you turned left three times and climbed through the next window, you'd end up in the kitchens, and one of the staff could lead you to the Throne Room, or wherever you needed to go.
Celie only used Rule Two when she wanted to steal a treat from the kitchens, and Rule One when she wanted to watch her father at work. Her father was King Glower the Seventy-Ninth, and like him, Celie always knew which way was east....
The Castle didn't seem to care if you were descended from a royal line, or if you were brave or intelligent. No, Castle Glower picked kings based on some other criteria all its own. Celie's father, Glower the Seventy-Ninth, was the tenth in their family to bear that name, a matter of great pride throughout the land. His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather had become king when Glower the Sixty-Ninth's only heir had turned out to be a nincompoop. Legend had it that the Castle had repeatedly steered the old king's hairdresser to the throne room via a changing series of corridors for days before the Royal Council had declared him the next king, and the young man who should have been Glower the Seventieth found himself head down in a haystack after having been forcibly ejected from the castle through the water closet.
King Glower the Seventy-Ninth, Lord of the Castle, Master of the Brine Sea, and Sovereign of the Land of Sleyne, knew when to leave well enough alone. He married the beautiful daughter of the Royal Wizard when the Castle guided them into the same room and then sealed the doors for a day. He paid attention when the Castle gave people larger rooms or softer chairs. When his oldest son, Bran, kept finding his room full of books and astrolabes, while his second son, Rolf's, bedroom was moved next to the Throne Room, King Glower sent Bran to the College of Wizardry and declared Rolf his heir.
And when little Celie was sick, and the Castle filled her room with flowers, King Glower agreed with it. Everybody loved Celie, the fourth and most delightful of the royal children.
But Celie ends up facing some big problems. Her parents go to Bran's graduation from the College of Wizardry, and on the way home, they are attacked by bandits in the pass. Bran's horse is found dead, but they don't find the bodies of the royal family. However, the king's Griffin Ring, which rumor says can only be removed at the king's death, was found at the site of the attack.
Search parties are sent out, but the king and queen and Bran are not found. But things don't look hopeful for them, and the ministers don't want to be without a king. Princes from their neighboring countries come with armed guards, plus servants and advisors and ministers of state. Ostensibly they are coming for the funeral. But Celie and her brother and sister don't want to have a funeral. Though there seems to be no reasonable hope of finding their father alive, the Castle has not yet turned Rolf's bedroom into the Royal Bedchamber, where the Crown of Sleyne remains. So the current King Glower must still be alive.
But with the king missing, the neighboring kingdoms see Sleyne as weak. The ministers want to go ahead with Rolf's coronation, but at fourteen they think he's too young to rule, and will need a regent. The Castle is filled with foreign soldiers and now the foreign princes say they're staying for Rolf's coronation. How can Celie and her sister and brother salvage the situation and save the kingdom? And how can Celie use her knowledge of the castle to defend the country and her family?
The story that follows is inventive and suspenseful and wonderfully creative. One lovely thing about it is that, though there's a little romance with Celie's big sister, the main focus all the while is on Celie, who is firmly a child, about ten years old. I love it that this child saves the day, doing realistic things for a child and little sister to do. For example, Celie is interested in the Castle and has been mapping it out. She knows it better than anyone. Which enables her to go places no one else can go....
A huge strength of this book is its wonderfully imaginative setting, though perhaps I should say the strength is really in the characterization, because the Castle is like a character itself. The three royal siblings left at the Castle are all distinct personalities and contribute to the solution in ways that are true to their character. And the plot is wonderful, too -- with plenty of twists and turns showing up like castle corridors changing direction, but all arising naturally out of the inventive situation the author has created. This book is tremendous fun, and my favorite children's fantasy book of the year so far.