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Book Review No. 25: MG Fantasy Ahoy

So it’s been a while! What with NaNoWriMo and my neglect of the Harry Potter Project, I haven’t posted a book review in some time.

Never fear! I picked up The Castle Behind Thorns for a little light reading, swallowed it up within 24 hours, and now we’re back to the original purpose of this blog: reading and reviewing all the books I can get my grubby claws on.

So!

Book: The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

Genre: Middle-grade fantasy/fairytale retelling

Series: Standalone

Content for the Sensitive Reader: a few instances of mild language, plot centers around a murder, resurrection/the undead depending on how you interpret it, references to saints/witches/magic, a few scenes with corpses which might be disturbing to very young readers. Relatively mild for MG fare.

BookmarkedOne Rating: 6/10

I could have marked this off right away as a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but I think there’s more woven into it than that. There are threads of fairytales, of course. The familiar hedge of thorns–though raspberries, rather than roses this time–should have clued me in instantly. But the characters and story itself are unique enough I think it’s better to appreciate it in its own right.

On the other hand…

I found myself almost warring over this book as I read along, trying to decide if I liked it. Reasons for this?

Pros
  • Blacksmithing. Probably the best strength of the book. Haskell’s use of the smithy in the story, both as illustrations and a piece of worldbuilding was excellent. I love it when books hold secrets I don’t know, making the place feel real.
  • The historical references. Breton, Richard the Lionheart, the Queen of France–all of it served to really ground the story in medieval history. And had the added benefit of making me feel like I was meeting old friends.
  • The survival plot. Not going to lie, I love this structure. There’s something about the survival storyline that creates a sense of tension and thrill even if the characters are just going about their day. Everything becomes interesting.
  • The realistic struggles. Our protagonist talking to himself because he’s lonely. The two main characters dealing with (sometimes in messy ways) the fact that they’re under a lot of pressure in a strange situation. It’s fantastic because everything isn’t just fine…but it’s not too dark for the target audience, either.
  • You can’t fix everything. Excuse me, but YES. I was worried there for a while the book would push the “I can fix it” mentality. And hard truth, we flawed humans can’t do that. It would be nice if we could. Personally, I find this the strongest message of the book. Some things are just broken. The Phantom of the Opera, for example. Our cold lady Morwen from The Children of Hurin. It’s not always daisies and summer and hugs. And that’s okay. Even when it doesn’t feel like it. So full applause for Haskell here.
  • The emphasis on forgiveness. I admit, it’s a little “on the nose.” But if your magic system is linked to religion, why not make the focus love and forgiveness rather than some obscure spell or ritual? And why not center your magic system on the power of imagination? It’s something all readers can do themselves.
  • The conclusion for the villains of the story. Without spoilers…A friend once told me she hated the MG trope of killing villains. And yes, more often than not, at the hand of the 10-14-year-old protagonists. Awkward. While it doesn’t bother me so much, I can appreciate that Haskell devised a fitting punishment for her villains that didn’t involve more death.
  • And who doesn’t love a happy ending?
Cons
  • Slow start. Not a big deal, but there’s a few pages of description of the castle that I had to forge through before getting to the story itself. Compared to Colfer’s Airman, it’s hardly worth talking about.
  • The obnoxious nobility trope. I get it, everyone assumes if you grow up in the lap of luxury then you’re destined to be a jerk. But it’s simply not true. Ditch the prejudice. Snotty people exist everywhere. Haskell got past this in her story, but I’ve seen it enough times that I couldn’t help being a little annoyed.
  • The magic system. So eventually, we as writers of medieval fantasy, especially those grounded in real-world history like Haskell, have to deal with magic and religion. It’s about as awkward as getting two estranged relatives to have dinner together. Haskell makes a choice. A reasonable choice. But one, in my humble opinion, that’s a little flawed. Rather than keep them separate, Haskell combines the medieval Catholic symbols (relics, saints, etc.) with the magic. It appeases worried parents, yes. Miracles are generally easier to stomach than blood magic. It still irks me. If Haskell chooses actual saints from church history to use in her story, then she runs the risk of offending religious individuals. And creating the sense of a cult. Religion is a super touchy subject. But beyond these extreme possibilities, there’s a general rule: either you get good theology or good stories. If they mix, both tend to get soft. Exhibit A: Landon Snow. Don’t even get me started on that. Again, it’s a choice. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. But it’s not my favorite choice.
  • The definition of forgiveness. Don’t misunderstand, it’s fantastic that Haskell hinges her story on forgiveness. I just squirm at defining its purpose only for the person doing the forgiving…again, definitions of terms I have that not everyone may share.
  • The murder. Again, it’s not graphic…it’s just cold blooded murder stands out as a little strong for the rest of the book…and the target age group. Use your own discretion.

All that aside?

It’s the story of two friends who make something new. That’s beautiful, yes. But it didn’t really speak to me or sing or tear something loose the way other books I’ve read had.

In the end, it’s a fine book. Amusing for a few afternoons, perhaps. But it’s not earth-shattering. And after some of the beautiful things I’ve read, I admit I’m harsh on my ratings if it’s not something that forced me, even kicking and screaming, to fall in love.

So! The Castle Behind Thorns. A slightly longer review for a book that sits squarely in the middle of the shelf. Now on to read more.

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