The Castle Behind Thorns

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
The Castle Behind Thorns Book Poster Image
Delightful, gentle fantasy stresses power of forgiveness.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will learn about the culture of Brittany during the early 16th century; some folklore about the lives of saints important to Bretons of the time; and one of Brittany's important agricultural crops. They'll learn a few French and Breton vocabulary words and about the rocky relationship between France and Brittany at that time. The ingredients for making ink are given, and kids can be encouraged to look up the modern names for "green vitriol" or "oak galls." There's a lot of detail about the art of blacksmithing. A few Latin phrases in the form of family mottoes are translated.

Positive Messages

Be careful what you wish for; it might come true. Magic should have some purpose to it and be used to accomplish good. Observe, test, and assess before you try something. What a relationship is called (whether you're a stepparent or a half sister) isn't important; the relationship itself is what matters. Forgiving someone doesn't mean they deserve your apology; rather, it means you'll be able to move on in life without being burdened by anger or hatred.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sand and Perrotte, both about 13, demonstrate tremendous resourcefulness in providing for themselves and surviving when they're trapped, for what could be months or years, in a deserted castle. They're loyal to each other and their families. They each value learning -- for Perrotte, academic study; for Sand, craftsmanship -- and carefully think problems through to find solutions. Sand comes from a loving family, not without its problems, but he comes to appreciate the tremendous support and love that spring from it. There are villainous adults, but no one's completely evil.

Violence & Scariness

The scariness comes mostly from the creepy atmosphere of the abandoned castle, such as when a corpse is described with some detail but no gore or when a character awakens after being dead for many years. The thorns surrounding the castle act as if they're alive, reaching for and enveloping things that come close. Blood from scratches and scrapes is mentioned a few times; pus from a wound is mentioned but not described. Complications from childbirth ("childbed fever" and excessive bleeding) are mentioned. Sand's feelings of murderous rage are described in detail, but how he calms himself down also is described.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell (Handbook for Dragon Slayers) is a charming, delightful fairy tale. The pace is gentle but there's enough suspense to keep the pages turning. The scariness comes more from a creepy atmosphere than from violence, monsters, or fast action, but blood is mentioned a few times. The 13-year-old heroes, Sand and Perrotte, are strong role models, and the themes of family, memory, and the healing power of kindness and forgiveness will give kids lots to think about.

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What's the story?

Thirteen-year-old Alexandre (Sand) wakes up one morning to find himself inexplicably in an abandoned castle, where every single object in it has been broken. Cut off from escape by the magical thorns that surround the castle, he begins to repair things he'll need to survive alone for what could be months, years, or even his whole life. Soon a girl about his age appears, and they set about finding a way to survive. But, to escape the powerful thorns and get back to the lives they should have had, they'll have to put more than the broken castle back together.

Is it any good?

THE CASTLE BEHIND THORNS is an enchanting fairy tale parents will enjoy reading aloud as much as kids will enjoy reading on their own. Its pace is gentler and quieter than the excitement in author Merrie Haskell's Handbook for Dragon Slayers. It's less about adventure and more about learning, growing, and the power of forgiveness. Suspense is created early on and sustained at a consistent level that keeps the story engrossing without over-the-top action.

Stellar language such as "furniture slumped like beasts fallen to the hunt"; the mysterious and poetic recollections of Perrotte's dream-like afterlife; and themes of family, memory, and forgiveness will make multiple readings a rich, rewarding experience.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what forgiving someone really means. Have you ever forgiven someone or been forgiven by someone? How did you feel before and after the forgiving?

  • Why are books with magic and fantasy so popular? Why do we enjoy reading books with magic in them? 

  • Did you know Brittany is a real place? Where is it?

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