(Note: This review contains some spoilers.)
Tess and her little brother, Max, are spending the summer with their Aunt Evie in England, while their father is reporting from a war zone and their mother is undergoing treatment for a serious illness. Exploring the countryside, Tess stumbles across an ornately carved gate that leads to a strange garden, and a boy named William who may not be exactly what he seems — a boy who gives her a strange warning: “Beware of the hawthorn trees.” In the effort to find out more about the boy and his home, Tess and Max are sucked into a magical world where adventure beckons and danger lurks.
“The Castle in the Mist” is the first book for middle-schoolers by Amy Ephron. Ephron is not only a bestselling writer for adults, but also a member of a famous family of writers. Her parents were screenwriters (Carousel, Belles on Their Toes, Desk Set), and her sisters include screenwriter/novelist/essayists Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) and Delia Ephron (You’ve Got Mail, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). With those sales and that pedigree, I had high expectations for The Castle in the Mist . . . expectations that didn’t quite pan out.
The biggest problem is that there’s not really a story here. Ephron doesn’t give us any sort of a narrative arc, or any real structure at all. Confronted with a mysterious neighbor and his equally mysterious home, Tess and Max keep exploring, experience some strange happenings, find out more, get themselves out of a jam or two . . . and then everybody suddenly gets a happy ending and the story is over.
What suspense is there doesn’t last very long, and the mystery of William and his home is simply explained at the end — explained in supernatural terms, but explained nevertheless. There’s no forbidden knowledge, no particular cost to finding anything out, no rules of engagement, very little magical guidance, none of the standard tropes of a fantasy story. And while there’s a case to be made that some of those tropes are overused and could stand to be refreshed, simply doing away with them and not replacing them with anything makes for a fairly blah story. It doesn’t help that Ephron’s style manages to feel simultaneously rushed and rambling.
More than that, we never even come close to understanding why this fantasy world works the way it does. Confronted with Max and William’s sudden disappearance when they forget to avoid the hawthorn trees, Tess decides to save them, and takes a series of steps to do so. But why these particular steps? What inspires them? Why do they work? We get no real answers to any of these questions.
The only source of guidance Tess has is the memory of her father’s wise sayings. Her reliance on these is helpful and inspiring, but still, there’s no real clue as to why she makes the specific decisions she does, and why they work, in a world where she doesn’t know the rules. Sometimes she simply goes by what worked for her before, but even that doesn’t always makes much sense. (For instance, just because making a wish lets you ride a magical carousel, it doesn’t necessarily follow that making a wish will help you rescue your brother and friend from sudden exile to another world.)
On the plus side, Ephron writes beautiful descriptions of William’s world and the odd and wonderful things in it. And there aren’t many major content issues. Tess lies to her aunt about William and his garden at the beginning (but at least she feels guilty about it). And there are one or two mentions of prayer to the pagan gods who are represented by statues in William’s garden, but these are brief and not dwelt upon.
The biggest issue is that, unfortunately, The Castle in the Mist is simply not a very interesting or well-told story. It might be enjoyed by readers at the younger end of the middle-school age range, but older kids probably won’t find much in it.
Image copyright Philomel Books. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.