Monday, April 15, 2013

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

I have had pretty good success with jester stories.  There was this one, which was excellent.  There was this one, which was OK, but since it shared the narrator of the excellent one, I enjoyed it as well.  So, I turned to Jepp, Who Defied the Stars with high hopes. After all, I had also enjoyed listening to the author's previous book (although, as was my habit all too often when I first began blogging, I never mentioned her name: Katherine Marsh).  As Jepp himself would say, the stars were aligned.

Jepp (pronounced yep) is a young man, growing up in the safe confines of his mother's inn on the edge of Austraveld, a small town in what is now the Netherlands. In the late 1500s, the Netherlands is a part of the huge Spanish empire. And the Infanta, ruler of that corner of the empire, has a taste for dwarfs. (As my loyal readers know, I always like to provide links to other websites that might be of interest ... if only to me.  What I learned in my search for links this time is that the Infanta pretty much had her portrait painted by every painter of the late 16th and early 17th century [one of which is below]. But here's a link to a little bit of information about her.)  Jepp has endured the occasional jokes and indignities at his expense at his mother's inn (indignities she always put an immediate halt to), so when a strange man with a long name -- a man Jepp decides to call Don -- entices him with tales of the Infanta's court in Brussels, he agrees to leave his mother and make his way to the Infanta's court at Coudenberg Palace believing he is destined for bigger things.

Even though Jepp finds a room scaled to his size and meets other dwarfs, he doesn't meet the Infanta until Don arranges for him to jump out of a pie.  A bright boy, who learned to read and write from the travelers at his mother's inn, Jepp soon realizes that he is in a prison ... a prison of wealth and comfort, but a prison nonetheless. And when a fellow dwarf, the beautiful Lia, turns to him for help escaping that prison, disaster strikes.  Exiled from the Palace, Jepp is placed in a cage and carried to another castle, a place called Uraniborg in Denmark. Jepp will become the dwarf and plaything of an eccentric astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Not only will Jepp continue to jump out of pies and sit at Tycho's feet at the dining table, he will now sleep with Brahe's pet moose.

Jepp asks the big questions: Was his fate already decided for him at his birth? Can he only leap from pies? Or can he take charge of his future and chart his own course? Perhaps his fate is both written and self-determined.

Kind of a perfect subject for a novel for teens. And there are no surprises in Marsh's story. Still, I liked it. Jepp is a completely sympathetic character and his fate matters. I enjoyed her research (there really was a dwarf named Jepp at Uraniborg, and a moose).  There is an old-fashioned quality to Jepp's first person narration that had moments of melodrama, but they didn't detract from what became a story of real pathos and triumph.

The novel is narrated by Paul Michael Garcia, who -- alas -- is not Maxwell Caulfield. I realize it is entirely unfair to ask one narrator to be another, but I found Garcia's reading to be almost too mature in a way.  He makes no attempt to portray Jepp's youthfulness, although Jepp's longings and questions are nothing if not that of a young man. I also confess to missing the English accent (not necessarily of Caulfield), as -- in some ways -- it seems a more appropriate choice for a story taking place in 16th century Europe. (Why, you may ask? Nothing but personal preference.)

Garcia creates characters well, although he seems more comfortable with men than women. No one has an accent indicating their origins (Spanish, Dutch, Danish among others), but he does give an appropriately nasal voice to a character who has no nose (Tycho). He pronounces Tycho two ways (TIE-ko or TEA-ko) when that character first enters the novel, eventually settling on the latter (which I believe is the correct one).

Interestingly, the author (in some cute little videos on her website) pronounces Jepp with the hard J.

Sadly, the author's afterword is not included in the audiobook and I -- for one -- would have enjoyed listening to it.  There is a lot of fascinating history in this book and I would have appreciated the author's perspective on that history.

Marsh is the second young adult author to use the quote from Shakespeare I've used as my post title as her novel's epigraph. The other?

[How to choose from the many illustrative possibilities provided by this novel.  The portrait of the Infanta with her dwarf was painted by Frans Pourbus the Younger and is owned by the Queen.  The image of Uraniborg is from Joan Blaeu's Atlas Major.  Both were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh
Narrated by Paul Michael Garcia
Blackstone Audio, 2012.  11:07

No comments: