Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #32: A historical fiction book
By focusing on an obscure historical personage -- a mere footnote to more "important" figures -- this book avoids the sweeping generalizations and summaries that often put me off historical fiction. Instead, we get an intimate look at a young dwarf's journey from the Spanish court to a scholar's palace, all while he wrestles with the questions that define all of us -- where we came from, where we are going, and what gives our life meaning.
Although the description of this book focuses on Jepp's time in the scholarly household of Uraniborg, about half of the book is devoted to his time as a royal court dwarf/jester Belgium. I found this aspect of the story to be just as interesting, and perhaps even moreso, than the later developments. Perhaps this is because my own novella, Rumpled
, focuses on a court dwarf, or perhaps it is just because this is a side of history that we rarely see. Although it was common for royal courts to keep dwarfs, very rarely do we hear their stories, even in fictionalized form. This book succeeds not only because Jepp tells his own story, but because he is briefly situated within a community of other court dwarfs, which keeps him from being a symbol of all people like him and outlines the diversity of experience and perspectives even among dwarfs in the same royal household. Namely, it transforms this historical footnote into richly developed characters that are not reduced to the aspect of their characters that is most striking to outsiders -- their size -- but that says the least about who they truly are.
This book had a strong sense of setting and ambiance, and I'm hating myself for not visiting Coudenberg when I was in Brussels nine years ago ... I did not even know it was there! Although it is historical fiction, at times it has the feel of fantasy because Marsh draws her world in such a way that it seems magical, situating it in a time when new scientific discoveries were opening people's minds about what the world was and what it might be.
My main criticism of the book is that the "big reveal" about Jepp's past/parentage did not feel satisfying to me -- I just couldn't bring myself to care about Jepp's past as much as I cared about his present/future. The fact that this aspect was put off so long made me expect it to be more impactful than it was; it felt like an afterthought clumsily dressed as a climax. Still, it was not enough to interfere with my enjoyment of this masterful work of historical fiction.