Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Castle Hangnail

Castle Hangnail
by Ursula Vernon
Recommended Ages: 10+

The minions of Castle Hangnail have served mad scientists, vampire lords, cursed beastmasters, loathesome hags, and evil sorceresses. But lately, they've fallen on hard times. No one has responded to their letters inviting eligible candidates to become their next master, and they're on their last extension from the Board of Magic. If someone doesn't come soon, the castle will be demagicked and possibly torn down to make way for a subdivision, and that will be the end of the whole village's quaint charm. Then one day, a 12-year-old girl named Molly shows up, claiming to be a wicked witch and clutching one of their invites. She just has to complete a list of magical tasks and the castle is hers. The kid has talent, sure. But will it be enough to save the castle?

Molly's minions are a quirky bunch. There's a little ragdoll who walks, talks and sews, and whose pet goldfish has a streak of hypochondria. There's a mother-and-son pair of minotaurs, an empty (but alive) suit of armor, a steam spirit (kind of a cross between a mermaid and a djinn), and a bat who sleeps at night and flies by day. At first, it looks like it'll be a cute little kids' story full of goofy magic. But it keeps getting darker and deeper, and the at first whimsical creatures increasingly reveal real character. As you see more and more of their hearts, they grow on you, and their adventure – complete with villains who threaten the future of their family and home – catches you up in its dramatic grasp.

This book is the real deal. The story is longer, emotionally deeper and more fully realized than you would expect at the start. Like something else I've read by the same author, it avoids shortcuts and easy answers and gives us the full treatment instead. Besides being a magical adventure with fantasy beings, talking animals, spells, spookiness and thought-provoking ideas (like the difference between "wicked" and "evil"), it also has a goodly number of perfectly timed gags that made me laugh out loud. From such adorable illustrations as a donkey-faced dragon to spells that build readers' word power (such as "piscine" and "majordomo"), it has much to appeal to a younger reader, but not just that. It has stuff in it that will go to the heart, and funny bone, of readers of any age.

Ursula Vernon, who says in this book's acknowledgments that she wanted to be Eva Ibbotson when she grew up, is a talent I definitely mean to watch. She has a flair for the weird and a knack for a well-turned joke, yet neither stands in the way of her putting together a fully satisfying story. Vernon is also the author and illustrator of Nurk, Digger, The House of Diamond and its sequel, The Mountain of Iron, the 11-book Dragonbreath series, six Hamster Princess books and the graphic novel Irrational Fears. She has also published a sketch collection titled It Made Sense at the Time and, under the pen-name T. Kingfisher, is responsible for The Clockwork Boys, Swordheart, A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking and about a dozen other books.

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