Goodreads: Castle Hangnail
Published: April 2015
The minions of Castle Hangnail need a new Master in residence or the Board will decommission them and the minions will have to find a new home. But when Molly shows up on the doorstep, the minions are not so sure things will work out. Molly, after all, is only twelve-years-old and hardly seems like a Wicked Witch. In fact, she seems like rather a polite witch. But the minions need someone to be Master and so they are willing to give Molly a chance. But she has secrets that might ruin them all.
Castle Hangnail is a cute story that plays with story tropes such as the wicked witch or the evil minions, reimagining them not as horrors but as regulated parts of society. Dilapidated castles here are expected to have bad owners, whether that means a mad scientist or an evil sorceress, and they have to abide by the rules to keep their dwelling. Meanwhile, the minions who serve them follow their own code of loyalty (for which they are rewarded some protections) toward their masters. This idea of government regulation mixed with the stuff of nightmares not only keeps the story from becoming too scary for younger readers but also gives the tale a fun, fresh air. Castle Hangnail will not keep anyone up at night because of terror, but because the story is too good to put down.
Ursula Vernon keeps the story light by casting a Wicked Witch as her protagonist. Wicked Witches, we learn, are only a little bad–whereas evil sorceresses are, well evil. Mad scientists might experiment on the minions. A Dark Lord would terrify the village. The minions and the inhabitants might expect such owners of Castle Hangnail, but they secretly prefer something like a Wicked Witch. And Molly? She’s only twelve, and thus probably less wicked than most. When asked to use her powers to prove her ownership, she quickly realizes that the board who regulates things like empty castles are not too fussy about how their regulations are interpreted. She might use her powers to scare someone, but only someone who is involved in a wicked deed themselves.
Of course, such goings on raise the question on whether the ends justify the means. Should Molly be scaring people even if that means she does good in the end? What about another character who lies to achieve what she perceives as a good goal? Readers know, of course, that Molly is supposedly Wicked…but, is she? She might be a little confused, a little rebellious, but she hardly seems to have darkness in her heart. The lines between good and evil here are blurred. That could give a nice nuance to the story, causing readers to reflect on how we label and judge others. But in this case, the story never seems to probe these questions, but rather wants to have things both ways. Molly is a Wicked Witch, but one who wants to do good. How else are readers to sympathize with her?
Aside from this confusing character interpretation, however, I really enjoyed Castle Hangnail. It’s fun and funny, playing cleverly with tropes but never calling attention to its cleverness–so often playing with tropes means the book calls so many other stories to mind that the world of the story being told is lost. In this case, I never left Molly’s world, but believed in it whole-heartedly. This is one of those rare books that I would not mind having a sequel.