Castle of Shadows, by Ellen Renner (Houghton Mifflin, March 20th, 2012 in the US, middle grade, 400 pages)
When Charlie (aka Princess Charlotte Augusta Joanna Hortense of Quale) was only six, her mother kissed her in the middle of the night, and left mysteriously, and her father the King withdrew into a world of his own, where all that mattered was constructing an enormous house of cards. Five years later, Charlie is scrounging a living for herself as best she can, a neglected ghost in a castle now ruled by a tyrannical housekeeper, in a country governed by the Prime Minister, Alistair Windlass.
But things are changing. Revolutionaries are plotting against the Prime Minister, and he himself (a cold, intelligent man who was great friends with the King and Queen), has remembered Charlie's existence. Suddenly she finds herself caught in a web of political intrigue, desperately trying to unravel the reasons behind her mother's abrupt departure, and trying to figure out whom she can trust. Is Tobias, the (moderately) friendly gardener's boy, an ally...or are the secrets he refuses to share a threat to the kingdom? Is Windlass Charlie's friend, or is he using her for her own ends? And what of the Revolutionaries, Charlie's missing mother, and the enemy expansionist state threatening the peace of Quale!
Set in a quasi-Victorian world similar to our own, but with a dash of steampunky alternate technology, this is one that should appeal to those who like plucky kids caught in complicated situations, where not much happens in the way of outright adventure, but plenty of locks are picked, clues uncovered, and suspicion clashes with friendship. Charlie doesn't actually accomplish all that much--she never exactly saves the day and sets things to right. Her story is not a hero's quest, but rather a satisfying journey from life as a forgotten pawn to an active and intelligent participant in her world, capable of making true friends and assuming responsibilities.
It's not a cheerful, cozy read--it is, after all, set somewhat clausterphobically in a castle of shadows, and Charlie's life is pretty horrendous. The ending comes with surprising, sudden darkness, that was somewhat distressing, involving a gruesome death (so those who don't like gruesome deaths should be warned!).
I myself found it gripping, though patience and intelligence are required of the reader during the gradual uncovering of secrets, and the hunt for answers. Like Charlie, the reader only knows bits and pieces of the story, some of which come from untrustworthy sources, so a lot of speculating is called for!
The book ends at a reasonable ending place, but I, for one, am glad there's a sequel. City of Thieves is already out in the UK--another one for my burgeoning Book Depository shopping cart...
(review copy received from the publisher)