Scholastic Press, $17.99 hardbound, ISBN-10 0545464420, August 2014
Adrian is small for his age, even for an almost thirteen year old. It doesn’t help that he has albinism, which makes those he meets wonder if he’s an angel or a devil. His father is a bowyer, and all Adrian wants to do is become apprenticed and go off to war as an archer. But that’s not what his father wants for him. Since Adrian can write, his father wants him to be a scribe. That’s just about the last thing Adrian wants. When the Scots invade England and Adrian’s best friend Hugh runs off to find his father and fight in battles, Adrian soon follows, intent on finding Hugh and joining him in glorious warfare against the pagans invading England from the north. When Adrian finds Hugh, who is caring for a wounded Scotsman, he’s horrified that Hugh would aid an enemy. But soon, as Adrian gets to know Donald, he begins to question what he’s been taught about the enemy and the nature of war. In this epic journey an afflicted boy finds an inner strength he never knew belonged to him.
I learned a lot from this story, but I think my three main takeaways were:
- Bowyer – person who makes bows. Makes sense! Anyone else find it weird that people name their little boys Fletcher (someone who makes arrows, not sure which term gets precedence if you make both), but Bowyer has yet to break into the baby name big time?
- If you think living in medieval times sounds terrible, imagine you are also an albino living in this most unenlightened and superstitious of eras. Oh, and you have asthma. You’re welcome!
- We librarians talk a lot about how literacy and education are the way up from poverty. This is quadruply true when 90% of the people in your time period are illiterate. Okay, 90% isn’t an accurate figure; it’s the impression I got from reading this book, though.
I don’t mean to be flippant about the book, though, which is an interesting thrill ride through a medieval village, then city, then monastery, then battlefield. Sometimes it felt a bit like, “How much of medieval England can Adrian see?” as he meets street gangs, monks, knights, enemy Scotsmen, and all manner of townspeople. However, everything pulls together because of the strength of Adrian’s character, and because he uses the same skill sets to get himself out of trouble. That’s not to say he has an easy time of it. Erskine makes life hard on him: people mistake him for a demon, bigger kids pick on him, his aunt is beastly, he runs afoul of dangerous people repeatedly, and there’s an unfortunate latrine incident. Adrian constantly struggles with feelings of uselessness, wondering how he’ll ever make his way in a world that shuns him.
Erskine packs the plot with interesting historical details that firmly ground the setting. The dialogue gets a fairly modern take, which might not be accurate but does make it accessible. The NetGalley ARC I read had at least one anachronism in dialogue, but hopefully it will get rectified for the finished copy; I doubt anyone said “girlfriend” in 1346. The language is occasionally but authentically earthy, and there are a few instances of potty humor, but they’re genuinely funny. Erskine offers plenty of messages for takeaway, some about finding one’s place, some about the horrors of war. Funny, adventurous, and thought-provoking, this should be a surefire hit with anyone who can be talked into historical fiction.
Recommend to: Historical fiction fans, anyone wanting a more updated Door in the Wall
To buy or not to buy: A first choice.