Castle Waiting: Vols. 1 and 2
Created by: Linda Medley
Published by: Fantagraphics
ISBN: 1560977477 (Amazon)
One of the great, nearly insurmountable problems of genre literature is that it has a need to follow after the conventions of its genre. This can be fine if all one wants is more of what one has already read. More hard-boiled detectives down on their luck who come up against the jealous or crooked police force in order to solve the case but ultimately lose the fight. More unsuspecting lads who flee their home villages to get caught up in a prophesied battle for the fate of the world. More intergalactic political drama. More beautiful, youthful vampires to throb the hearts of self-important minors. More Westerns, more superheroes, more romances, more magical girls, more Amish spanking fiction.
The parade of derivative sameness seems an unceasing tide. If that’s what you’re looking for—something comfortable, predictable, and safe—then you’re in luck because there’s piles of the stuff out there. Personally, while a little bit of literary comfort food can hit the spot when I’m in just the right mood, I’m not usually super jazzed on the idea of indulging one more iteration of a book I’ve already read or already own. So while those piles of genre-steeped rehashes of copies do nothing for me, I too am fortunate because there are rare individuals working within genres in ways that seem ignorant of convention—and come off absolutely fresh for it.
In Castle Waiting, Linda Medley accomplishes something unique by proposing a medieval fantasy setting and then using it mostly to set stage for a series of character-driven episodes of people who mostly just talk about their lives. The castle at Brambly Hedge is the product of a sleeping beauty-style curse. For a hundred years, the fortress was grown up with a forest of thorns dangerous enough to end the lives of any adventurers who set out to discover the mystery of the place. Generations later, a charming prince finds his way through unscathed, wakes the princess, and the two of them leave the castle (and its servants) behind for a bright and ego-tastic future somewhere less provincial. A generation after that, the only ones left in the castle are the princess’ three handmaidens (now old), and they elect to turn the castle into a sanctuary for those in need.
That was all prologue and at the book’s real beginning, a pregnant Lady Jain arrives seeking safety inside the castle’s walls. She is fleeing from her husband lest he discover her pregnancy by another man and kill her for jealousy. Of course, all of this sounds not exactly untypical of the standard fantasy work. Maybe it’s rare to have a female protagonist open an epic adventure by running away with a baby in the belly, but everything else sounds pretty standard. It’s just that when I said this is where the book begins, it’s also pretty much where the story (in any grand sense of the term) ends.
The moment Jain enters into the Castle Waiting, all larger plot movement halts entirely and nearly all focus homes in upon the development of the relationships between Jain and those who make their home in the castle. Beyond the three handmaidens, there’s the rambunctious bearded nun, the plague-masked Doctor Fell, Sir Chess (the horse-headed knight gallant), Rackham (the werestork fashionista), simple Simon and his widowed mother, and the silent, aloof Iron Henry (the adopted son of dwarves). Each member of the community has a unique and compelling personal history and the simmering of their persons and circumstances makes for enjoyable reading.
After Jain gives birth to a strange-looking child (the very image of his father apparently), most of the two available volumes (comprising a mighty 856 pages) involve Jain hearing the histories of her new friends. Some of these stories are funny (e.g. that of the convent of bearded nuns) while others such as Doctor Fell’s are just plain tragic. While it may be at some point that Medley plans to bring some danger into the current situation (we get occasional glimpses into Jain’s own past), the most climactic event thus far was the advent of a Leaky Roof.
As with any book that puts the interpersonal dynamic on the front shelf, Castle Waiting stands or falls on its characters. Medley puts a lot of heart into each of these, giving them each their opportunity to win the affections of readers. She approaches their interactions with wit and humour. Those in search of dour characters bemoaning the lot their life has drawn will be disappointed, for everyone approaches life with a certain optimism and joie de vivre—save perhaps Henry (who is still working through things) and Doctor Fell (who’s really just kind of gone around the bend due his own grave circumstances). Castle Waiting is, almost more than anything else, a happy book. And one that I am happy to recommend.
There is some curiosity with the second volume. By agreement with the book’s publisher, Fantagraphics, Linda Medley’s name has been struck from the volume. It only appears in indicia and as a sticker affixed to the book’s rear cover. For whatever reason, Medley seems to have cut ties with either her product or with the publisher. As well, the final chapter of volume 2 ends abruptly. Not only does volume two leave the story in a kind of limbo, it doesn’t even quite seem that the page on which the book ends was intended to be that chapter’s final page.
As a fan of the series, this is a nerve-wracking development. Of course I care about Medley and wish her the best and hope that her relationship with Fantagraphics can be repaired (if it was ever even damaged), but really, as any fan, I am selfish and my concern is primarily for the work. I am invested in Medley’s welfare primarily because of what she is able to provide for me in terms of this wonderful genre-flaunting story and I want very much to see it continue to completion.
I’m not sure where things began to go funny, but volume 2 does experience the unhappy loss of letterer Todd Klein after two chapters (after Klein’s departure, Medley employs a serifed font in all her dialogue and it’s never not an awkward choice). There also seem to be some attempts at working with new page sizes that add some hiccoughs to the flow of the second volume. Fortunately, Medley’s strong hand as an author is evident throughout and her writing suffers no diminishment.
In any case, here’s hoping that all is well in Medley’s life and that she will return to the beautiful world she’s created once more.
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