Ellen Renner’s pre-teen fantasy adventure novel CASTLE OF SHADOWS is a solid tale about a young girl of eleven, Princess Charlotte Augusta Joanna Hortense of Quale (called “Charlie”), and her struggles to grow up in a time of revolution, intrigue, and strife. Complicating matters for Charlie is that her father, the King, is ill and has turned over all active ruling functions to his Prime Minister, Alastair Windlass, while her scientist and physicist mother, the Queen, left five years ago, reasons unknown.
Now, you’d think with Charlie being a princess that she’d have an easy life, but that’s just not the case. Charlie has mostly been neglected since her mother left, and has been “raised” mostly by the deposed butler, Mr. Moleglass, while the housekeeper, Mrs. O’Dair, clothes Charlie in the cheapest fabrics imaginable and feeds her scraps. Charlie hasn’t been to anything approximating a school in years; worse yet, no one seems to care what’s happening to her as her father’s too ill to take an interest.
Charlie mostly isn’t listened to, except by Moleglass, who can’t do very much as he’s been banished to the basement. So when she finds an unfinished letter from her missing and presumed dead mother to a mysterious woman known only as “Bettina,” she becomes extremely anxious, especially as this letter indicates that Charlie’s mother’s research had found something so dreadful that she actually burned all her notes about it. Charlie realizes that the only clues she may have to her mother’s disappearance are in her mother’s long-disused and now-padlocked library; that’s why Charlie extracts a promise from Moleglass that he’ll get her someone who’s good with locks in order for her to see if there’s anything in that lab that might help. But Charlie never expected Moleglass’s “locksmith help” to be in the form of the twelve-year-old boy who’s been blackmailing her for books, Tobias (“Toby”) Petch, though Moleglass swears Toby is reliable, dependable, and very good at picking locks.
Over the course of days, Charlie realizes that many things she’s taken for granted are flat wrong. Her father’s condition, for example, is worsened by a “medicine” that he’s been given by O’Dair; this is why he’s always so distracted and uncaring whenever she goes to see him. Charlie’s mother, who definitely did care about Charlie and her husband the King, may have fled for her life due to something she found out as a scientist — Charlie doesn’t really understand this, mind you, but what seems to be the case is that her mother discovered nuclear power in a world that doesn’t have any — and Charlie’s mother’s fate is all tied up with Windlass in an odd, confusing way that adds layers of complexity and intrigue to the overall story.
Speaking of Windlass, initially he’s seen by Charlie to be a “good guy” as he’s been watching over Quale due to the King’s illness. But over time, Charlie realizes that Windlass is a highly dangerous man with secrets of his own that he’s not exactly willing to reveal.
Other questions raised by CASTLE OF SHADOWS are: why does O’Dair hates Charlie so much? Why does Moleglass live in the basement? How does the threat of revolution come into it? And why, oh why, is it that Charlie has only two people she can depend on through the majority of this book, neither of which is a blood family relation of any sort?
All of these questions are answered, but every question that’s answered of course leads to another question. Because when a mother goes missing — especially a royal, scientist mother like Charlie’s — there’s usually a good reason for it. Unraveling the mystery of Charlie’s mother’s disappearance goes along with the main mystery for the reader — why has Charlie been neglected, and why doesn’t anyone care about this kid? — might be the main reason why Charlie becomes involved, but it’s assuredly not the only reason. (Especially after she realizes, dimly, the concept usually expressed as “noblesse oblige.”)
This story is told for the most part through Charlie’s POV and at the level where a typical eleven year old would be able to understand it. This is probably why Charlie, to show affection for the one age-appropriate friend she has, Toby, hits him and isn’t gentle about it. It’s why Charlie is hot-headed, yet has a heart of gold that she can’t really show (except with Moleglass, and later, a bit with Toby). And this is why Charlie’s own struggles are told in a breathless, fast-paced manner that matches the nature of the action-adventure, once that truly gets going in the latter half of CASTLE OF SHADOWS.
As for minuses, I would’ve liked to see a bit more about Toby’s situation, as understanding why it took him a while to warm to Charlie and go from blackmailing her over books to true friend and confidante would’ve strengthened things a mite. I would’ve also liked to have had a bit of actual strife earlier on — as it stands, Charlie finds out the country’s in real trouble about halfway in, and we don’t really see any armed action until nearly 7/8ths of the book has been read — as that, too, would’ve strengthened things a bit. And I never did get a good handle on why “the O’Dair” hated Charlie, except that O’Dair was a generally hateful person anyway — this may be enough for pre-teenage readers, but it wasn’t enough for me, the adult reviewer.
That said, this is a good, solid book about a child’s search for her mother amidst a whole boatload of confusion. The subplots dealing with the restless peasantry and the erosion of the middle class are clever ways to keep adult readers interested, yet aren’t so heavy as to overburden a younger reader’s understanding of the way the world works. And the female-male friendship makes sense, isn’t cloying, and adds depth and richness to Charlie’s character and the story as a whole.
I enjoyed CASTLE OF SHADOWS because it moved fast, it’s enjoyable to read, and Charlie’s struggles seem like something that could actually happen, even if the country of Quale is entirely fictional. This is a good book for pre-teens, teens who might otherwise be “reluctant readers,” and adults (within limits), as it will keep you wondering who did what to whom, and why, because the storytelling here is absolutely first-rate.
— reviewed by Barb