A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine (Harper Collins, 2011, middle grade, 226 pages)
12-year-old Elodie's heart is set on become a mansioner--an actress--in the city of Two Castles. But when she gets off the boat that had brought her from her home, she is dismayed to find that she is too poor to pay the fee to become an apprentice. In a stroke of good luck (although Elodie isn't sure of this at first), she is instead taken under the wing of the town's resident dragon.
Meenore, the dragon, is the town's detective (self-appointed), as well as a prosaic seller of toasted cheese in the market, and IT (the gender of dragons is a private matter) wants Elodie as an assistant. IT is all set to hone her powers of observation and deduction. But before Elodie can be accustomed to life in the dragon's lair, a full-blown mystery erupts.
Count Jonty Um, the kindly (but feared) ogre who lives in one of the two castles, asks for Meenore's assistance in finding his missing dog. But the dog is just the tip of the iceberg--soon Jonty Um becomes the victim of attempted murder, and, transformed into a mouse by the power of cat persuasion (shades of Puss in Boots), goes missing. And then, when a poisoner strikes the greedy king, Elodie (a handy scapegoat) finds herself the chief suspect....
It will take all her intelligence and all her skills as an actress (and considerable help from the dragon) to solve the mystery.
It's rare to see a fantasy novel that centers around an engaging mystery, and this focus made A Tale of Two Castles fresh and engaging. It's clever, and it's fun, and the characters (especially the dragon) are interesting as all get out! I can't speak to the quality of the mystery qua mystery--I'm bad at Clues, and I (blushes) read the ending half-way through. I did, however, think that the Badness of the main Bad character was too unforshadowed and unexplained. Not a lot of depth there.
But I do rather like the message that Levine's story sends. The distrust the townsfolk feel for the ogre is a serious matter that in large part drives the plot, but this issue is left for the reader to reflect on without it being heavily underlined. And Elodie's own initial feelings for both ogre and dragon are full of the fear of the unknown and different; by the end, they have both become her firm friends. (My mind kept reading the ogre's name, Jonty Um, as gentilhomme, so I felt friendly toward him from the beginning--I wonder if Levine had that in mind!)
This is a lovely sort of book to give the younger middle grade reader (there's no romance, just a crush Elodie has on a handsome roguish type), but, as I said, I enjoyed it just fine myself. It doesn't back a big emotional punch, but it was fun. Fans of fairy tale re-imaginings will enjoy the elements of Puss in Boots that Levine incorporates--it's not exactly a retelling of that story, but considerable bits of it can be found here.