The Castle Behind Thorns

by Merrie Haskell
First sentence: “Sand woke, curled in the ashes of a great fireplace.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s death and betrayal and politics, and lots of funny French names, so maybe it’s not for the most reluctant of readers. It’s in the midde grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sand, short for Alexandre, is the son of the local smithy in a small French duchy. (Well, it’s in one of those offshoots just when France was becoming, well, France.) The duchy castle has been in disrepair for longer than Sand’s 13 years, and surrounded by thorns. No one has gone to see what could be seen  inside.

Then Sand, who has been arguing with his father about attending university (he doesn’t want to), throws a token in Saint Melor’s wishing well, and ends up inside the castle. With no clue how he got there or how he will get out.

A brief aside here: we discover things right along with Sand, and while that generally annoys me, in this book it works to great effect. Sand is disoriented and alone, and Haskell captures that perfectly, transferring Sand’s anxiety and his slow realization that he’s stuck there and no one is coming to get him to the reader. All of which is followed up by his determination to survive and make things work.

During his explorations, Sand finds a body of a dead girl, and straightens her up. And because this place is magical (something which comes on very slowly, and quietly), she wakes up. Suddenly, Sand is not alone, and he and Perrotte — who happens to be the daughter of the long-dead Count — have to work together to find their way out of the castle.

I know it sounds boring, but it’s not. Haskell is a gifted writer, and she captures so many inner emotions and struggles and makes them not only real but captivating. I loved the friendship that developed between Sand and Perrotte (and that it wasn’t a romance!). I loved how they worked together to figure out how to get out of the castle. I loved that Sand’s strengths and Perrotte’s strengths were different and they found a way to compliment each other.

Yeah, all of this is really introspective for a middle grade fantasy novel, but in Haskell’s talented hands, it works well.

More than just well: it works wonderfully.

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