Review: Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon

The death of Terry Pratchett left a chasm of loss in the heart of fantasy lovers, one that will never be completely closed by those who love Sam Vimes, Sally, Cheery, Nobby, and the myriad other endearing characters who populate Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest city.

Castle Hangnail has come along at the perfect time. It cannot, will not, relieve the sense of loss, but it offers a middle-grade fantasy that hits a delightful inventiveness high filled with wit and humor. The story itself is simple: A twelve-year-old girl runs away from home to become the castle’s Mistress—the post having fallen vacant after the last Mistress zapped a television repairman and decided she was a rosebush—and must complete a series of magical tasks to prove her worthiness . . . and to prevent the Board of Magic from decommissioning the castle, thus throwing all the minions out of work.

What’s the story? On one level, this is the story of a young witch determined to become the mistress of a tatty castle, who finds she has a list of magical tasks to be accomplished. Molly is not the usual storybook heroine: She’s short and pudgy, with fuzzy brown hair and strong opinions, one of which is she is determined to be a wicked witch, but not evil, which is good since she has an irrepressible kind streak.

She wrestles with grown-up problems: Being recognized as competent despite her unexpected appearance, lack of qualifications, and her inner doubts. An abusive friendship from her past adds to her challenges and introduces a theme that doesn’t get as much attention as it probably deserves: Friendships in which one party makes the other weak and powerless. Molly’s kindness and innate courage, however, ensure all comes out well for everyone concerned, and while the ending struck me as not only improbable—which is saying a lot in a fantasy—but rushed, it also allows readers Happy Ever Adventuring promise for Molly and the loyal minions of Castle Hangnail.

Those familiar with Vernon’s Dragonbreath series or her short fairytale, Nurk, will recognize the wry humor, although Hangnail affords the author greater and more glorious scope.

First, there’s Majordomo, the castle’s guardian and a lisp-less Pratchettian Igor, as fond of cats as he is of his fellow Castle minions, an affection rivaled only by his determination to keep Castle Hangnail from being decommissioned. In this he is aided by his fellow minions, all of whom are more amusing and lovable than those yellow blobs in the movies. There is sentimental, stalwart, and invisible Lord Edward, who occupies a magical suit of armor and offers polite, if ineffectual, protection. In the kitchen is a minotaur cook with an iffy grasp on English and a hatred of the letter Q. Pins is a walking, talking pincushion and talented tailor, inseparable from her best friend, a hypochondriac goldfish who lives in a small bowl. Best of all is Serenissima, daughter of a djinn and a shopkeeper with some mermaid ancestry, a creature of steam who is handy for cleaning the carpets and drapes, creating a sauna, and—oh, so clever—who spends her free time in a teakettle “writing epic poetry about boilers.”

Adding to the fun, Clockwork Bees buzz around the gardens and the basement, while talking bats sleep in the high tower.

In what I choose to interpret as nods to Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, Molly stomps about in boots—“very serious boots . . . [that] looked as if they could kick a hole in a stone wall and have fun doing it”—although Majordomo occasionally worries they might not be sufficiently Wicked boots for the castle’s mistress. In fact, I will utter what Pratchett purists may consider heresy: Castle Hangnail is funnier than the Aching books and (blessedly) less obsessed with examining the dreary illogic of human failings. Indeed, I found the second and third books (A Hat Fully of Sky and I Shall Wear Midnight) to be reading slogs, too intent on forcing character development and almost devoid of the deft wit of many (but not all) of Pratchett’s other works. Molly is as thoughtful as Aching, but much kinder, less enigmatic, and altogether more fun.

Highly recommended.

Castle Hangnail Book Cover Castle Hangnail
Ursula Vernon
Juvenile Fiction
Dial Books for Young Readers

When little, twelve-year-old Molly arrives at Castle Hangnail to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the minions who dwell there have no choice but to give her the job and at first it seems she will be able to keep the castle open, but Molly has quite afew secrets that could cause trouble.

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