Castle Hangnail is unbelievably charming and one of the first reads of the year to make it to my ‘to buy’ list. To be fair, there are a few issues, but any book I finish and immediately start reading is a solid five-star read.
Castle Hangnail is in need of a master or mistress. No matter if it is an Evil Sorceress, Loathsome Hag, Vampire Lord or an ordinary Mad Scientist, the Board of Magic cannot let a magical building stay untended. The castle’s Minions have been doing the best they can, but they’ve just received notice that there will be no more extensions, so they need a master, fast. When twelve year-old Molly shows up at the door claiming to be a Wicked Witch, it seems miraculous. To take ownership, Molly has Tasks to complete, including acts of Smiting and Blighting, and winning the hearts and minds of the townsfolk, “however you like,” said Majordomo. “The old Vampire Lord like to keep the hearts in jars in the basement, but he was rather old-fashioned. You could just grind them all underfoot and demand tribute if you like.”
Ahh, the characters. Although there are humans in the village, Castle Hangnail is strictly inhabited by the magical, along with three ravens and a roost of bats. There’s the very conservative butler guardian Majordomo, an ancient and sewn-together type of man creature who has been with the Castle as long as it has been in existence; the ghostly suit of armor, Edward (of the rusty knees); the Minotaur, Cook, who has an antipathy against the letter ‘Q’ ever since her husband ran off with an encyclopedia saleswoman; Pins, the tailor and burlap doll and his sidekick goldfish; and Serenissima, the steamy offspring of a djinn and a mermaid.
“Pins lived in a small room over the laundry with a talking goldfish. The goldfish was intensely nuerotic and convinced that she was always sickening for something. Pins took very tender care of the fish and was currently knitting her a very small waterproof scarf.”
Vernon is also an artist, and one of the delights with the print edition is illustrations throughout the text, the small bats in the corner by the page numbers, and the curious way the page background turns black with white text when we come to a night scene. It also gives a hint into Molly’s ethnicity, described as “a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair. She was wearing black boots with metal caps on the end.” The illustration looks pleasantly multi-ethnic, with a wide nose and shaded skin. Interestingly, the one human we get to know and like the best is a middle-aged black woman with grey hair. Always a pleasure to find inclusive young adult that does not assume white as the character norm.
“‘I didn’t used to be able to make my clothes invisible too. That was awkward.’
‘That was my pastry,’ said Majordomo.
She swallowed and grinned at him. ‘That’s how you know I’m a Wicked Witch.’
Pastry-theft was not on the same level as lightning, but it would have to do for now.”
Plotting moves quickly, and while some of it is predictable–Molly will, after all, have to own up to her deception–completing the tasks takes magic, mundane problem- solving, kindness and ultimately, teamwork. There’s a great balance between self-reliance and teamwork. Its very much geared to the late grade school/early teen years in how development of confidence and consequence is dealt with. It reminds me of the slightly older-geared Year of the Griffin, a perennial favorite and re-read, and of The Ship Who Circumnavigated… by Valente, without the ornate imagery.
One of the interesting things about this story is that the reader is flipped back and forth between Molly’s and Majordomo’s perspective. It’s curious, and definitely two sides of the life spectrum; the pre-teen finding her confidence and the very, very old person confronting a new way of thinking about his world.
I’m not entirely sure Molly is truly on the ‘wicked’ side of the scale. One of my problems with the story is that it never really confronts that fact that Molly would be considered ‘wicked’ by many for her deceptions, but instead has to ‘prove’ herself in other ways. I think the implied message is that one can still be a good person and not be entirely full of sweetness, sparkles and pink bows, and that even occasional naughtiness can be appreciated. It’s a great message in the land of Barbie and the enduring fascination with pink Princesses of all brands. It’s also a good message for all of us older people that have learned to behave. Highly recommended, and definitely gift-worthy.