Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh is a fascinating work of historical fiction.

Jepp, a boy with dwarfism, has always been secure in his mother's love. Though he meets a wide variety of travelers who pass through his mother's tavern, he has always been cherished and protected. That changes one day in Jepp's fifteenth year, when a stranger named Don Diego arrives at the tavern. He offers to introduce Jepp to the court of the Spanish Infanta at Brussels, where there are others like Jepp who live a life of luxury. Jepp is torn between the comfort of life at the tavern, and the excitement of life at court, but in the end he decides to travel to the court. Life there is both good and bad -- the Infanta has caused a special wing of the palace to be built for the "court dwarfs," with specially proportioned furniture and fittings. However, the dwarfs are expected to perform to the Infanta and her court in ways that are often humiliating -- for instance, Jepp's first appearance involves jumping out of a pie. Jepp soon makes friends with the other dwarfs, particularly Lia, a lovely young woman near his own age. But Jepp is naive in many ways, and life at court is full of intrigue and danger for those without the power to protect themselves. Jepp will have many adventures over the course of the story, and will often wonder if the course of his life is determined by the stars, or whether he can have a hand in creating his own fate.

I found this story completely absorbing as I listened to the audiobook over the course of a long car trip. It's not a fast-paced read, but instead draws the reader into the richly detailed and carefully researched world of the Spanish Netherlands, circa 1590. I was favorably impressed with the audio production, and I'm sure I'd be mispronouncing the main character's name if I had only read the print version (the "J" is pronounced as "Y," English speakers)! Jepp is a faceted and realistic character, very believable as a teenage boy going from a small, familiar place to a complicated court in a large city, and he definitely matures over the course of the book as he faces a variety of experiences and finds his place in the world. There are all sorts of interesting tidbits about life in the Renaissance as well. If you enjoy historical fiction, I highly recommend this book!

(Reviewed from an e-audiobook, borrowed through my library system.)

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