This was actually my top-ranked book of our seven shortlisted Books in the Cybils Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, but it didn’t have quite the same traction with some of the other judges as it did for me.
In this smart, funny, and heartwarmingly charming and adorable fantasy, 12 year-old Molly claims to be a Wicked Witch and the new Master of Castle Hangnail. Though the castle’s minions are initially skeptical, they hope she will complete the Board of Magic’s Tasks and save the castle from being decommissioned.
There are some really funny twists on fantasy and horror tropes as the world is set up, which, while not necessarily wholly original (the author tips her hat to Eva Ibbotson in the acknowledgements), feel fresh, sharp, and appropriate to the intended reader. A lot of the humor is derived from the bathos of what should be and what is: A Master should “be storming around the battlements, defying the gods, screaming dark curses, raining lightning down on the village,” whereas Molly is appreciating poached eggs and interested in meeting the chickens. And her new outfit makes her look not quite like a queen of the night but more like “a princess of moderately late in the afternoon.”
Hangnail Castle is a terrific setting. It doesn’t have jagged mountains or a blasted heath, but is in a pleasant rural community, close to a friendly village with a post office and a antiques shop. This mixing of modern day quotidian problems into a fantasy olde worlde setting is exemplified by the plumbing problems they have, which recognize, as so many books do not, that a person needs to use a toilet on a regular basis.
Molly, “a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair” is a peach: Wicked but not wicked, curious, open, and full of heart. She manages to defy expectations, yet still achieve her goals in her own way; and though she has many doubts, she is grittily resilient and imaginative.
The team of minions are wonderfully drawn, with each one having a unique voice and their own role to play in the story. Majordomo was “born a minion, raised a minion, had died a minion several times, and then brought back to life with lightning rods, still a minion,” and his intense devotion to duty and subsequent doubts about Molly is a standout. And there are also two minotaurs who are the cook and the handyman, a talking suit of armor, a burlap doll who does the laundry and tailoring, his neurotic goldfish, and steamy (literally) spirit Serenissima who has her “associate minion degree and was considering graduate minion studies”
The plot is well-structured and zips along, allowing the author room for plenty of fun but having enough tension to keep the reader engaged, as Molly first has to complete her Tasks, and then, having secured the castle and won the support of the minions and the villagers, take on an Evil Sorceress Eudaimonia. This last section has a slightly darker tone as Molly recognizes how she has been bullied, and gets a scary peek into the Kingdom of Shadows.
I would happily press Castle Hangnail into the hands of any 3rd – 6th grader who enjoys stories with fantasy, humor, or strong characters. Or maybe any 3rd – 6th grader. Or younger! Or older!