Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Castle Hangnail

Go To
Castle Hangnail is a children's novel by Ursula Vernon. It's a comic fantasy in a similar vein to the works of Eva Ibbotson.

Castle Hangnail is a dark and crumbling magical castle that has been home to many a Mad Scientist, Cursed Beastmaster and Evil Sorceress. Lately, however, it's been without a Master or Mistress for many years, and the Board of Magic is threatening to have it decommissioned. Nobody seems to want a dark and crumbling magical castle set amid cheerful meadows and with a staff of only seven minions including the hypochondriac goldfish.

So the loyal minions of Castle Hangnail are relieved when their invitation to the Evil Sorceress Eudaimonia gets a positive response — even though it comes in the form of a cheerful twelve-year-old girl who invites them to call her "Molly". Still, she's definitely magical, and clearly has an affinity for Wickedness, and if she can perform the Tasks set by the Board, the castle will be saved.

Molly, however, has a few secrets. For one thing, she's never had much of a magical education, and nearly all of that was Good Magic. The few bits of dark magic she knows were taught her by the real Evil Sorceress Eudaimonia — who is going to be so mad when she finds out what happened to her invitation...

This novel provides examples of:

  • Absurd Phobia: The castle's cook has an irrational hatred of the letter Q as a result of a past trauma. This mainly manifests in a running gag about Molly finding books and bits of books missing whenever she goes to look anything up in the castle library.
  • Always Identical Twins: Molly and Sarah are identical twins, which is mentioned only to underline how different they are and never becomes relevant to the plot.
  • Animated Armor: One of the minions is an animated suit of armor named Edward, infused with the ghost of its former owner.
  • Bad Boss: Discussed; the minions have standards about what kind of behavior is acceptable from a Master. Handing out punishments for minor infractions is perfectly ordinary and even expected. Killing is relatively okay, especially if he always remembers to revive the victim once he's calmed down. But there are some things that are just not on.
  • Banister Slide: Molly slides down the banister of the castle's main staircase at one point when she's in a hurry to answer the door.
  • Brick Joke: At one point, as an indication of the disrepair the castle is in, there's a scene of Majordomo stretching a tarpaulin over a large hole in the floor of an upstairs room to prevent rain getting into the rooms below, then adding a rug over it in an attempt to make it look a bit less shabby. Just as he's thinking that he ought to erect a sign warning people not to walk on the rug, an emergency breaks out downstairs, and the hole is forgotten about until somebody falls through it fifteen chapters later.
  • The Caligula: Edward recalls that the king back in his day was Mad King Harold, who believed he was cuttlefish, declared himself the Emperor of All Oceans, and tried to declare war on the clouds for not paying tribute.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang:
    • Molly ends up getting quite a bit of use out of the cow-into-a-dragon-for-a-minute spell, even though there are no cows in the story.
    • The spell where you dance with your shadow as well turns out to be useful during a confrontation with a crooked property developer, and then again at the climax.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Several of the things Molly learns about her magic while helping the moles turn out to be important at the climax.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Witches are described as this in a magical duel, improvising with what they have to hand rather than going for raw power like a sorceress.
  • "Down Here!" Shot: The literary equivalent occurs when the head minion opens the door to welcome the new Mistress of the castle, who is younger and shorter than he is expecting:
    He looked out.
    He looked up.
    He looked left.
    He looked right.
    Finally he looked down.
  • Dragged Off to Hell: Molly summons her shadow to defeat Eudaimonia by breaking her wand, but instead it begins dragging her to the Land of Shadows. Molly has to use a bit of Blood Magic to get the shadow under control, and decides she's never going to cast that spell again.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The head minion of Castle Hangnail has no name, and answers to whatever his current master or mistress calls him, which has resulted in him spending large periods of time going by "Lackey" or "Wretch". Molly decides she's not going to be that kind of person, and settles on "Majordomo".
  • Expressive Mask: The faceplate of Edward's helm (and particularly the eyeslits) are sometimes described as showing facial expressions.
  • False Friend: Molly never thought Eudaimonia was a good friend, but did think she was a cool older girl who taught her some magic and was simply a bit of an Alpha Bitch. Over the book Molly realizes that Eudaimonia had been manipulating her, stealing her power, and was actually seriously evil.
  • Fantastic Racism: Eudaimonia treats minotaurs as talking cattle, and Pins as a sample to be studied.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: It's mentioned in passing that one of the Evil Sorceress's henchmen, after being taken to hospital to treat his injuries, fell in love with his nurse and became a completely reformed character.
  • Forced Transformation: There's a running gag about Molly wishing she knew a spell for turning people into earwigs when they need to be taught a lesson. At the end of the book, the minions find one and present it to her as a token of their appreciation.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Molly, though she's less the bluebirds-and-squirrels type than the bats-and-moles type. Her sister is the kind of girl who goes around making insipid comments to "Mr Bluebird" and "Miss Rabbit", but it's not recorded whether the animals respond favorably.
  • Functional Magic: A mix of rule magic and inherent gift—magic is mostly done with spells and artifacts, but the spells and artifacts won't work for someone who doesn't possess a magical gift. And some spells won't work for a person with the wrong kind of gift; there are spells that Sorceresses can do but Witches can't and vice versa. (It's mentioned that only someone with the rare inherent gift for Necromancy can get the spell to raise the dead to work, and that this is a good thing because the spell itself is quite simple and doesn't require any exotic ingredients.)
  • Genie in a Bottle: Parodied with the half-genie Serenissima, who manifests as a cloud of steam and lives in a teakettle instead of an oil lamp.
  • Green Thumb: Molly has a spell for plant growth, which is integral to the final battle (and which she has used to win second prize in farm shows).
  • Harmless Freezing: Eudaimonia is fond of this spell.
  • Having a Heart: When Molly and Majordomo are discussing strategies to win the hearts and minds of the neighboring villagers, Majordomo mentions that one of the castle's former Masters preferred a literal approach and kept a collection of hearts and brains in jars in the basement.
  • Hero of Another Story: Pins. Lampshaded: the goldfish reflects on Pin's heroic journey crossing the desert and fighting monsters, all carrying the goldfish in a plastic bag. The narrator observes that it shows that minor characters can also have been heroes. The author even illustrated some scenes from Pin's quest, though not in this book.
  • Hypochondria: The goldfish is a hypochondriac, and swims around her bowl in a sweater and scarf to ward off the chills. It's a sign of how serious things have become at the climax when she stops worrying about her health, and a sign of things returning to normal when she starts again.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Molly and Sarah can't be in the same room for five minutes straight without discord, but woe betide anybody who mocks Sarah in Molly's hearing. "Nobody calls my twin stupid but me!"
  • An Ice Person: Eudaimonia possesses a wand that gives her ice powers.
  • The Igor: Majordomo, the head minion, is a scarred old man who's lived and died and been revived and lived again in service of the castle. He's not actually a hunchback, but walks with a habitual stoop that gives the same impression.
  • Inspiration Nod: One of the first books Molly looks at in the castle library is by "A. Nesbit", a homage to E. Nesbit, one of the pioneers of this style of children's fantasy.
  • Interspecies Romance: Serenissima's father was a djinn and her mother was a human (with a bit of mermaid in her from another interspecies romance farther up the family tree). According to the narrator, "This sort of thing happens all the time, and nobody pays much attention".
  • Invisibility with Drawbacks: Molly's one piece of inherent magic that she can do without any external aids is that she can turn invisible for as long as she can hold her breath.
  • Lame Comeback: The Evil Sorceress instantly produces a snappy comeback to Molly's challenge, which Molly is unable to come up with a snappy response to. The narrator notes that Evil people have an unfair advantage when it comes to snappy comebacks, which Molly doesn't share because she's merely Wicked.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: After spending the novel being amusingly eccentric, the minions all step up near the end when the castle is threatened.
  • Living Shadow: Molly can cast a spell that makes her shadow separate from her, and she can then command it. The first time she uses it, it's to dance with. Every time she casts it the shadow becomes larger and more sinister, eventually becoming a cross between Enemy Without and Superpowered Evil Side.
  • A Lizard Named "Liz": The castle's minotaur minion is named Angus, which is also the name of a breed of cattle.
  • Loophole Abuse: All the Tasks required for Molly to claim the castle are completed this way, more or less. This is even true when things become serious. The castle is first secured by driving an 'invasion' of weeds from the garden, then later when Eudaimonia sets herself up in the tower that is not, technically, part of the castle. The hearts and minds of the villagers are won by being a helpful Karmic Trickster rather than through force (or the more literal method).
  • Mad Scientist: One of the former masters of Castle Hangnail was one, complete with the electrodes and the screams of "It's alive!"; he made Majordomo the man he is today.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Eudaimonia is this, being very good at manipulating people through being nice when they fail to meet her deliberately impossible standards and Condescending Pity the rest of the time.
  • Martial Arts Headband: When the goldfish has to swim through a stretch of cold and murky water to help rescue her best friend, she tears a strip off her sweater and makes it into one of these.
  • Mind Rape: Any mind control beyond simple confusion and sleep spells completely breaks the target's mind. It's considered a Moral Event Horizon even by professional evil minions. Eudaimonia did this to her mother, though it's unclear whether she understood how nasty it was when she did the magic.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: All the minions are Wicked, but not Evil, and get on quite well with all the neighbors. They're a good match for Molly, who is the same, and carefully restricts her obligatory reign of terror to people who deserve it.
  • Mustache Vandalism: After the Evil Sorceress traps one of her victims in a block of ice, one of her henchmen carves a mustache in the front of the ice block over the victim's face. Surprisingly not really played for laughs, since it's to demonstrate how little the henchmen care about the victims.
  • Noodle Implements: The Complicated Metal Thing, which Molly finds while searching the castle for things that might be sold to pay for its upkeep, and which nobody can figure out what it does. Near the end of the book she meets somebody who immediately recognizes it, but assumes that she already knows what it is, and what he says about it just raises more questions.
  • Nostalgia Filter: At one point, Edward remarks that modern politics, with its Prime Ministers and Parliamentarians, isn't as good as it was back when he was alive, when you got rulers like Mad King Harold, who believed he was a cuttlefish and tried to wage a war on the clouds. He stands by this even after Majordomo reminds him that it was Mad King Harold who cut Edward's head off.
  • One to Million to One: As part of the demonstration Molly gives her new minions to convince them she's powerful enough to run the castle, she appears to disperse herself into a swarm of bats and fly away. (She can't actually; what she does is turn invisible at the appropriate moment while a friendly swarm of bats who live in the castle's belfry provide the effects.)
  • Our Dragons Are Different: In this case they're created by Forced Transformation and show strong Morphic Resonance. The donkey dragon is grey with long ears, the bat dragon is small and agile, and the goldfish dragon is a foot long golden sea serpent.
  • Perky Goth: Molly is more or less this, allowing for the fact that she's twelve and her relentlessly normal parents and sister have veto powers over her clothing preferences.
  • The Place: The title is the location where the story takes place.
  • Plumber's Crack: Delicately alluded to. Every time the plumber appears, it's mentioned that his trousers have a tendency to ride down at the back and display more of him than most people would prefer.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Molly and Sarah. Molly is a Wicked Witch who likes bats and earwigs and animal skeletons and dresses in black as much as her parents will let her; Sarah loves pink and glitter and ponies, and regularly visits the residents of the local retirement home.
  • Power Parasite: It turns out Eudaimonia has been stealing Molly's power for a long time now. When Molly finally cuts off the flow, the direction of the battle turns rapidly.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Nearly everything Eudaimonia says is one of these, or a prelude to one. And finally, Molly responds in kind.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Showdown at High Noon: When Molly challenges the Evil Sorceress Eudaimonia to reclaim the castle, Eudaimonia makes a snide comment about beauty sleep and declares they'll fight for it at noon tomorrow. The sentence "This castle isn't big enough for both of us" is uttered. Molly, however, is pragmatic enough to start her counterattack early, and a good thing too because it turns out Eudaimonia wasn't just being dramatic, she had a strategic reason for choosing noon.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Molly finds a spell for this in the castle library, it's probably her greatest strength.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: Cook has an idiosyncratic way of speaking that sticks to present tense and avoids pronouns and other connective words, and comes out sounding vaguely Russian.
  • Super Smoke: One of the castle's former Masters was a Vampire Lord who could transform into a mist.
  • Tuckerization: Mention is made of the great alchemist Sonney, named for Kevin Sonney.
  • Twin Telepathy: Discussed. Molly tells Majordomo that she and her twin don't have a private language or know what each other are thinking.
  • Weird Trade Union: The minions are all members of the Minions Guild, which has standardized testing and levels of qualification. It's mentioned that there's another separate union for heroes' trusty companions. Although not itself a union, the Board of Magic that oversees evil lairs and makes sure they meet professional standards is an expression of a similar idea.
  • What Does This Button Do?: During the introductory tour of the castle, Molly is shown a device of uncertain purpose built by a Mad Scientist who used to occupy the castle; it features a button with a prominent label saying NEVER EVER PRESS THIS BUTTON — and the button has been pressed so hard it's stuck in the 'on' position.
  • Wizards Duel: Molly and Eudaimonia have one at the climax. It is specifically referred to as 'the type people write songs about' because Sorceress spells are powerful and flashy, while witches are stubborn and tricky.
    • It's mentioned in passing that these aren't particularly uncommon but that many varieties, like psychic duels, aren't much to look at from the outside. The combatants seem to just stare at each other until one drops dead bleeding from the nose.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe:
    • The ſpellbook Molly findſ in the caſtle library uſeſ the kind of antiquated ſpelling where "every s looked like an f (which happens in very old books)".
    • Another book in the library is A Witche's Grimoire of Practicale Magicke, "written in an era when E's were plentiful".
  • You Won't Feel a Thing!: The minions recall that the Mad Scientist often said things like this to his test subjects, and it usually wasn't true.