This review contains SPOILERS and is intended for parents.
There have been a slew of sentient-building stories recently and Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George is easily one of the best of them (followed narrowly by 88 Lime Street and The Inn Between, which I’ll review soon).
Don’t be misled by the cute cover or even the fun-sounding concept of a castle that changes its rooms around once a week. Tuesdays at the Castle is excellent for older readers and features a truly awesome female protagonist. It’s ideal for anyone who thinks they’re growing out of “princess books”. Nevertheless, the marketing department of Bloomsbury USA have made a serious misjudgement regarding the cover designs for Tuesdays at the Castle (all of the editions, but the ebook in particular (the top picture on the right)), which led to my then-five-year-old choosing it expecting a gentle princess story. It’s definitely not a book for young children; the sudden ambush and murder of the king and queen had one kid in tears and both agreeing to give the book a miss for the time being. (These are the same children who lapped up Harry Potter books one, two, and three – the difference being that the HP books begin with Harry’s parents already long dead; there’s enough distance to take the emotional edge off. In Tuesdays at the Castle the reader gets to know the kind, loving monarchs, through the eyes of their youngest child, and the loss of her beloved parents is sudden, unexpected, and brutal. It’s great storytelling, just not for the young’uns.)
The story unfolds through the point of view of Princess Celie, the youngest of the four royal children. Celie knows and understands magical Castle Glower the best, and, in turn, she appears to be favoured by the castle. The castle has ways and means of making its will known and no monarch can rule without the blessing of the castle. It’s also the castle who approves the next in line to the throne, and therefore it’s the second-eldest child, Rolf, who is the official heir.
As mentioned, King Glower the Seventy-Ninth, Queen Celina, and their eldest son, wizard-in-training Bran, are ambushed and apparently killed whilst away from the protection of the castle. The Council rush to have a quick memorial service (complete with foreign guests from neighbouring lands) and an even quicker coronation for Crown-Prince Rolf, who, at fourteen, is deemed too young to rule without the Council to act as his Regency. But the castle allows Celie entry into a tower room none of them have seen before, and she finds within a spyglass that can see wherever she wants it to (even through stone and into the throne room), a hooded cloak that muffles sound completely, and a door that opens into a secret spy tunnel. From the tunnel, Celie learns that a number of their councillors are traitors and that they are about to insist that one of the foreigners (the aggressive Prince Khelsh) be appointed as an additional council member and then to force Rolf to appoint Khelsh as his heir. Further spying on Khelsh, Celie hears him admit to ordering the ambush and assassination of her parents. But it’s not all bad news. The castle has not yet altered the chambers of the king and queen, and neither has it changed Rolf’s to befit his new status as King Glower the Eightieth. Surely this means their parents are still alive – and, indeed, an ally confirms this when he returns from the site of the ambush. The castle also gives Celie clues as to whom she and her siblings can trust, including their other foreign guest, the foppish Prince Lalath. Together they secretly send out further search parties and requests for help from their allied neighbours.
For some time the Deus Ex Lapis set up allows the three younger royal siblings to stay one step ahead of their captors, and even helps them escape by causing locked doors to vanish and walls to appear in place of doors. At last Khelsh has had enough of their pranks and defiance and he performs a spell that kills the castle. And this is when the devastated Princess Celie really shines. With everything now frozen in place, Celie and her older sister Lilah are inadvertently trapped in the spytower and their only way out is to use a rope to climb out of the window and creep along a rooftop to re-enter the castle via a balcony. The sisters rig up a pulley system and at first only Celie leaves to collect food and essentials. Along the way she dismisses the staff and her knowledge of the secret tunnels and trapdoors is essential as she realises she must ensure every servant escapes or Khelsh and his men will use them as hostages. After a long night clearing the castle of her people, including bravely (though somewhat accidentally) dispatching two of Khelsh’s soldiers on her own, Celie returns to the tower to rest before she and Lilah winch each other out of the tower, find Rolf, and make for a secret escape point that involves a brief dive in the moat through an underwater gate (something the siblings have, naturally, done many times for fun). But at the last minute Celie chooses to go back for the crown to deny Khelsh the triumph, again bravely facing off against him and his soldiers. The moment that Celie becomes able to reawaken the castle, and it rises to her defence, feels well-earnt due to her bravery and selflessness.
I was pleased to find that the series continues with four more days of the week so far:
Wednesdays in the Tower
Thursdays with the Crown
Fridays with the Wizards
Saturdays at Sea