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Book Review: The Ice Castle

The Ice Castle: An Adventure in Music

by Pendred Noyce

Illustrations by Joan Charles

Scarletta Junior Readers, 2012

Author Pendred Noyce and her partner in crime, artist Joan Charles, are at it again. Readers may recall their debut collaboration, Lost in Lexicon, in which they perpetrated the base treachery of creating an educational children’s book that was actually enjoyable to read, a taxonomical oddity on the level of chocolate-flavored Brussels sprouts. In that first book, thirteen-year-old cousins Daphne and Max, with a little nudge from their old Great Aunt Adelaide, discover the magical realm of Lexicon and have many adventures there that managed to be great fun while also featuring barely-disguised geometry problems, some shameless appeals to logic, and a climax that attempted to show peaceful, friendly cooperation in a good light. There was no violence (Ivan was captured a few times, but mainly because – although Noyce has the good grace not to crow about it – he’s nowhere near as good at adventuring as Daphne is), no parent-eviscerations, no nihilistic face-tattooing … so the appeal to early-teen readers was hard to see. Likewise there was no saccharine mumbly-wumbly talk, no non-stop condescension, and no tacit permission to evade the consequences of your actions … so there went the pre-teen market. It’s almost as though nobody told Noyce and Charles that young children today are widely characterized as pallid, monosyllabic cellphone-zombies … or they’ve heard it but don’t believe it.

Daphne and Ivan return in The Ice Castle, which opens with two disturbing developments: Great Aunt Adelaide is suddenly very sick, and among her visitors at the hospital is Ivan’s ornery, force-of-nature Aunt Leonora, who’s got her eyes on Aunt Adelaide’s farm (which, unbeknownst to her, contains the portal to Lexicon). In Aunt Leonora’s shadow is their shy cousin Lila the aspiring singer, and before too many pages have turned, Lila has accidentally found her way to Lexicon, and our intrepid young duo must return to that magical land to find her and bring her back home.

The world they encounter this time around is quite different from last time: this is the Land of Winter, where society is organized entirely around musical ability. This might be good news for Lila, who becomes something of a star, but it’s bad news for the less gifted Ivan and Daphne, who come face-to-face with the social inequalities of a world in which the Diva and her court Ladies rule thoughtlessly over the deaf, who are their servants:

Often the young Ladies spoke to their deaf servant girls in bright cheery tones as if they could hear. The older nobles, on the other hand, treated the servants as if each was only a pair of hands and feet. Any duties they failed to understand, the Diva and her Ladies explained in flourishes of sign language.

There are plenty of adventures, and there are great new characters (including a dashing hero who Ivan later informs the pining Daphne was “too old for her”), and there are charts and addition tables and, one can hardly make oneself say it, diagrams – all presented cheerily, as the devil’s work often is. An attempt to explain musical scale comes closer to clarifying that brutal arcana than anything written since the days of Palestrina. Once again, conversation and cooperation are brazenly encouraged.

In the end, our heroes succeed in bringing Lila back to the ‘real’ world, where Aunt Adelaide is recovering from surgery that may give her a chance, and where Aunt Leonora is confronted with a newly confident Lila:

She [Lila] stood, threw back her shoulders and sang in Italian, a lament so sweet and tremulous and then so full of resignation and forgiveness that the curtains wavered before the windows and Daphne felt a longing swell within her to do great and noble actions.

The whole thing ends on a wistful, hopeful note and the promise of at least one more adventure in Lexicon. And there’s a very helpful discussion guide, but you probably feared as much.

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