This handsome hardcover collects (if I’ve gotten this right), The Curse of Brambly Hedge, issues #1-14 of the mostly self-published series (as well as those put out by Cartoon Books), and short stories from Scatterbrain #1 and the second Trilogy Tour special.
Regardless, now that all this Castle Waiting is under one cover, the original appearances are irrelevant. This is the format that suits the material. The book’s old-fashioned look acknowledges the tradition behind the story’s setting — all those fairy tales, especially the ones about princesses locked away in castles. The off-white paper, the sewn-in ribbon book marker, the delicately patterned endpapers, and the deckled edges are all lovely touches in this homage to the past with present-day attitude.
This is a thoroughly modern take on traditional stories. Author Linda Medley takes those left behind by the protagonists we’re more familiar with and spins the tales of their lives. The opening three chapters tell of Sleeping Beauty, focused on the women who try to help her, first the wise women (witches) who make her birth possible and then her handmaidens. In this version, it’s narrated by the princess’ ladies-in-waiting, who hung around the castle after the ungrateful girl woke up and bailed with the prince she’d just met. They convert their residence into a refuge.
That leads into the next major story, in which Lady Jain comes to them to have her baby. As she meets many of the castle’s inhabitants, including Dinah (the cook), her son Simon (who’s half-giant and a bit simple), the creepy Dr. Fell, and Rackham Adjutant (the steward; his appearance is inspired by illustrator Arthur Rackham, who drew himself into his work as little bird-like men), so do we. There’s also Sister Peace, whose story makes up the last major piece of the book.
She’s a Solicitine, a particularly special kind of nun. Their patron saint is Wilgforte, dedicated to unhappily married and independent women. During a rainy day at the castle, Peace tells Jain about her stints as a barmaid, her time at the circus, and how she found her sisterhood.
Women are central to these stories, but all the characters are fascinating, each with their own background. (One of the inspirations of the series was to consider what happened to some of the incidental background characters after “happily ever after” for the princes and princesses.) Sister Peace is one of my favorites. She’s intelligent, compassionate, canny, inspiring, free-thinking… and it’s refreshing to see good have more fun than evil.
Medley’s confident style beautifully portrays all kinds of characters — royalty, demons, animal-headed people, fairy creatures — plausibly and in coordination with each other. She is an incredibly skilled draftsperson, and this series is built on expert cartooning in the classic sense. She can draw a horse as a regular beast or an anthropomorphic character, and no matter the treatment, it all looks natural.
Their attitudes are clear, making these previously far-away two-dimensional characters realistic people you want to meet. Her approach is straightforward, bringing practicality to these fantasy stories, with charm and skill. And Medley puts in plenty of humor, as when the prince finds his bride:
“I love you! Marry me!”
(In unison) “What’s your name?”
There’s also adventure, exploration, and plenty of good fellowship. (I love the baby fairy, protecting his little charge.) Like her source material, Medley doesn’t shy away from the sometimes dark and disturbing aspects of some of these tales, like children in danger or killer thorn hedges, but the overall feeling is much more homey. Medley’s exploring a self-created community, one where everyone contributes and cares about each other, centered on home and hearth.
Castle Waiting is fantasy for everyone, with a refreshing everyday take on what medieval folktale life would be like. It’s a lovely portrayal, optimistic and inspiring. The cast are such rich characters that the reader wants to know more, all of their secrets, quickly, but as we get to know more about their backgrounds, there promises to be much more of this terrific story yet to come in future years.
Linda Medley won the 1998 Eisner for Talent Most Deserving of Wider Recognition, and Castle Waiting won 1998 Eisner for Best New Series.