The Secret of Castle Cant
Style: Average → Good
Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive
In Brief: Whimsical palace intrigue which turns quite nasty. Trust and friendship between two young girls. An illegitimate child acknowledged. Caricatured villainy resulting in the deaths of loved ones.
Published in: 2006
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Setting: The Barony of Cant
- 12-year-old Lucy Wickright, polite, deferential and quick-witted is personal maid to Pauline, petulant, whimsical, but friendly, only daughter of the Baron Cant, distant and ill, ruler of the Barony of Cant.
Lucy Wickright discovers a plot to kill the Baron and take over the Barony by controlling the young heir to the title. Since her job is to care for Pauline, daughter of the Baron, she allows herself to become involved with The Cause, campaigning against the habit of chewing gum which appears to be affecting the population of Cant and the Baron in particular.
The writing is fresh and imaginative, and any slight cracks in the style's faŕ¸Łŕ¸ade are papered over by the characters of and relationship between Lucy & Pauline. Lucy is polite and thoughtful without losing one iota of her sparky character, and Pauline turns out to have more to her than the spoilt child you first meet. Lucy is young enough not to be interested in the other maids' concerns about “bodies and bumps” but is old enough to blush when a palace rebel refers grandiloquently to her T-shirt designs as the “emblems of justice you wear on your breast.” The girls have a number of sensible and well-intentioned adult friends, from Lucy's innkeeper uncle to the elderly castle librarian to set and advise against the obvious evildoers and the political meddlers.
The story opens with Lucy & Pauline about to catapult a basket of laundered underwear into the courtyard where a chicken is about to be ceremoniously executed in place of a prisoner brought to trial for decrying the noxious habit of gum-chewing which has obsessed the nation. A whimsical tone which you might imagine would pervade the story. But a darker edge emerges: Lucy's family are cruelly murdered, by a villain in comic-book disguise. The same villain is poisoning the Baron, Pauline's father, and at the end of the book, the girls are caught up in a confused political situation as rival causes battle it out for control of the Barony. Younger readers may find it a bit much.
At a certain point, the dying Baron must explain to the girls that he fathered a child before marrying Pauline's mother. In the circumstances, the fact is made clear with some delicacy and the Baron regrets the secret he has forced himself to keep not least because of the unjustice done to the unwitting child, Pauline's elder.
While the book has the slightly awkward feel of a first novel, the characters and situations are boldly and engagingly drawn. The plot doesn't shy away from bad news, nor does it revel in it. Rather, the intelligence and heroism of the main characters carries the story along and the reader with it.
Here Lucy stopped reading — not from despair of ever reaching the end of the first sentence, but at the murmur of voices in the corridor. Someone was coming. She looked in panic around the office. The room had no curtains or tapestries or suits of armour to hide behind. She hurried to the cupboard and opened, one by one, the broad doors of the base. The shelves were stacked with official forms, books of regulations, and reams of foolscap. One was crowded with apothecary bottles and a pestle and mortar, and behind another, atop a carton of stamps, she discovered a woman's blood-red gown. The voices drew nearer. She heard the soft shuffle of a guardsman's sandals.
Trembling, she opened the next tier of doors. Here the shelves sagged under platoons of ink bottles, tins of biscuits, and ranks of rubber stamps. One door hid a plaster bust of Gustaf the Fey who leered so maniacally at Lucy that she nearly cried out. Her nose dripped violently.
Tuesday 1st January 2002