I just recently finished rereading both volumes of Castle Waiting by Linda Medley for the second time. But I’ve never sat down to write an actual review of it, so that is what I’m doing now because it deserves it.
On a whim, I originally checked these graphic novels out of the Canisius College library where, as you all know, I work. That was way back in April of 2014. For Christmas last year, I received a few Barnes and Noble gift cards and decided that, even though I’d already read both, I was going to invest in my own copies of Castle Waiting Volumes 1 and 2. I just loved them that much.
What I didn’t realize until I was shopping was that there are two “versions” of Volume 2: the unfinished version and the Definitive Edition.
Unfortunately, Canisius has the unfinished one. I remember now that, upon my first rating of Volume 2 on Goodreads, I only gave it four stars because it ended so abruptly. The Definitive Edition is about 100 pages longer and has several extra chapters and an epilogue that tie up all the loose ends. That is the edition I purchased with my gift cards. I’m not sure why exactly Volume 2 was ever published unfinished in the first place — maybe a dispute between Medley and her publisher? If anyone knows the story, please feel free to tell me!
Anyway. We’ll start with Volume 1. This is your spoiler warning.
Castle Waiting takes place in a kingdom called Putney. Volume 1 begins with a laugh-out-loud funny retelling of Sleeping Beauty that ends with the princess riding off into the sunset with her prince the second she wakes up and abandoning her throne completely. This is a “prologue” of sorts, as the main story takes place many many years later. Eventually the castle empties out and becomes “Castle Waiting,” where three of the princess’s handmaidens (now elderly ladies) and their friends anxiously await a new princess to come along and make the castle as grand as it once was.
Enter Jain, a pregnant noblewoman who runs away from an abusive marriage to search for this strange, quirky, welcoming Castle Waiting her father once told her about. The inhabitants of Castle Waiting — Rackham, a talking stork and the castle steward; Patience, Prudence, and Plenty the elderly handmaidens; Sister Peace, the Solicitine Nun; Chess, a humanoid horse and proud warrior; Dinah the cook, and her half-giant son Simon; Dr. Fell, a very strange and morose Plague doctor; and Henry the blacksmith — welcome her warmly into their home, no questions asked, and eagerly await the baby’s arrival.
So much happens in Volume 1. We learn a little bit about Henry (who lost a son in war and had his broken heart removed), a little about Simon (who wants to learn to read), and a lot about Sister Peace (who, it turns out, has a beard, escaped the circus with her friend Nellie, and joined the Solicitine convent — a convent of bearded nuns!). The stories of Castle Waiting’s inhabitants are equally hilarious and heartbreaking.
That same tone carries on to Volume 2. In these chapters, Jain — with her new Leshy son, Pindar — moves into the old, abandoned Keep, where she becomes the castle’s official librarian. We’re shown much more about her background, from how she met both her husband (a cruel nobleman) and her lover (a pesky but kind-hearted and goofy merchant’s son), to her relationship with her father and her step-sisters, and even a little bit about how she knows Chess. Henry’s “brothers,” the Hammerlings (dwarves) who took him in as a child, arrive at Castle Waiting to ask for some human woman’s clothes for their newest fosterling, and in return they help Jain and the others move her stuff into the Keep. While they visit, antics ensue, from bowling to exploring old secret passages. Manly-man Chess finds he has a soft spot for babies as he watches Pindar for Jain; there’s a ghost (a familiar face!) haunting the Keep; Simon makes progress learning to read, and eventually asks Henry to teach him to write; Quincy the cat teaches Pindar (who, we find out, is definitely a Leshy) to purr; Flora the goat makes things difficult for everyone; the housesprites demand storytime twice a day; and Dr. Fell ventures out of his rooms and starts to finally open up to his “housemates,” but not before Rackham tells Jain about the doctor’s tragic past fighting the Plague on the island of Poveglia.
There is no major plot in Castle Waiting, at least not yet; there is some hint that there might be a war looming, but it’s not explored very much until the last few chapters of Volume 2. There are only small goals. Volume 1 focuses on Jain’s attempts to settle in and get to know those around her, and Volume 2 focuses on her move into the Keep. There’s no big mystery, no epic, world-changing threat to ensure that the reader continues turning the pages.
And yet, I could not put down either Volume 1 or Volume 2. The reviews are glowing all-around; in fact, I have yet to see a negative review anywhere. And those good reviews are well-deserved too.
Linda Medley is such a skilled storyteller and artist. Each and every character, from Flora the goat to Jain the protagonist, is so very carefully illustrated, so full of personality. (Don’t even get me started on the housesprites. If Medley sold them as stuffed animals, I would buy every single one of them, especially Stoopet, a.k.a. “Stu,” the sad little kitten-like creature who misses his home of Putney Town. They are all so freaking adorable! Even the ugly ones!) Oftentimes I find in graphic novels that artists tend to draw all of their characters alike, and sometimes casts of characters can be so big that it’s hard to tell them apart. This is not so in Castle Waiting. Readers should have no trouble whatsoever putting names to faces. Every panel is so interesting and fun to look at, and the dialogue is approachable, oftentimes very funny, and never ever boring.
And, of course, the best part is that the characters are so diverse, and so feminist. Through Chess we see issues of “fragile masculinity,” although it’s always explored through humor; through Jain and Sister Peace and Nellie (and virtually every other woman character), issues of sexism and misogyny both great and small are tackled; even classism is explored. But the tone is never “too serious,” and the reader is guaranteed to smile the whole way through. All of the women hold their own and have big, bold personalities, even the “unlikable” ones such as Jain’s half-sisters. Although I wish there were more queer characters, or that racism was tackled (especially through Nellie, a black character), Castle Waiting definitely hits the nail on the head when it comes to feminism!
No matter your age, you’ll put down Castle Waiting and wish it was a real place, feeling like you’ve made a batch of new very close friends. I know I wish it existed, even more so than I wish Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or Narnia were real — which is really saying something, since I grew up reading about those places! You’ll laugh and cry (of joy mostly, not so much sadness, although the housesprites’ story tugged at my heartstrings) and when you finally finish reading them, your face will hurt from smiling so much. I cannot express enough how important this series is. If I could buy a copy for everyone on the planet, I would.
I believe there was a long wait between Volume 1 and Volume 2, and it was some time before Medley decided she would indeed continue the story in a third volume. That one (as well as a series about the witches from the “prologue” in Volume 1) is in the process of being written now, if the 2013 rumors are true. I have no doubt that it will be well worth the wait.
If your library doesn’t have Castle Waiting, I would certainly recommend that you save up for it or add it to your Christmas or birthday list. I promise it’s worth the $20-25 per volume (if you purchase them new, and not used; you may be able to find used copies on Amazon for much cheaper). But be careful: when you purchase Volume 2, make sure you buy the finished, Definitive Edition! The unfinished one is not nearly as satisfying.
This series has earned its place on my list of favorites. I’ve never been happier to stumble upon a book at the library in my life. Five stars isn’t a high enough rating.