Friday, September 9, 2016

Book Review: The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz

You may have heard some of the buzz surrounding the book I’ll be reviewing for today’s post,  Adam Gidwitz’s upcoming novel The Inquisitor’s Tale, out this month from Penguin. The buzz you heard is probably good. I’m happy to say I’m here to add to it!

The Inquisitor’s Tale tells the story of three children - Jeanne, a peasant girl who has a holy dog named  Gwenforte; Jacob, a Jewish boy; and William, a biracial oblate - on the run from the authorities in medieval France for reasons unknown by the reader at the start. We learn the details of their stories not from the children themselves but from a group of travelers gathered at an inn telling their stories to one another, in the style of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Everyone’s got a piece of the story to provide- a monk from the monastery William was forced to leave, a butcher from the town where Jacob lived, the innkeeper who housed them all for a night, a nun who knows more than she should, and more. Enhancing the story are illuminations, illustrated by Hatem Aly, that ring the text, flesh out scenes, add detail, and sometimes contradict the storyteller. The advanced reading copy I read only had one chapter of illuminations, so this is a book I’ll be returning to for a second reading as soon as possible.

I loved this book for so many reasons. On a topical level, it’s a period of history I’ve always enjoyed learning about, and visiting a setting in time through fiction is my favorite way to relive that enjoyment. I took a course on the Crusades when I was in college, and the story covered a lot of the events I learned about and featured real people whose accounts of the crusades we had to read for class. I then discovered in the acknowledgements that my professor, Sara Lipton, was one of Gidwitz’s consultants for the book! I was pretty excited to say the least. Speaking of the back matter, it’s incredibly thorough and well-written. In fact, I’d say I’ve never enjoyed reading the back content of a book more. Gidwitz goes through the back story for his characters, explaining thoroughly to readers what was based in fact and what he invented for the story. It also features an annotated bibliography that not only describes the content of the book but recommends for what kind of reader each would be appropriate. Teachers, you should be excited!

The writing itself is gorgeous and nuanced. Each tale-teller has their own distinct voice, made unique by style, slang and tone. Gidwitz deftly weaves humor and heart into horrible situations - the children face anti-semitism, agism, classicism, racism, religious tension and more not only from those around them but amongst themselves. And the humor ranges from subtle and wry to straight up bathroom jokes, which is a win in my book. When you shelf-talk this book to a skeptical listener, don’t forget to mention the farting dragon. I read this book over a fairly short period of time and found the pacing to be consistent with a lot of momentum; it didn’t really drag at any point, which can be a stumbling block for historical fiction, particularly one of this length. The resolution you think you’re waiting for will shift and change as the story moves forward in a way that’s exciting - it’s a page turner! The moment when the various threads of the plot were brought together gave me goosebumps. I can’t wait to read it again with the full illuminations, and to share it with friends and family.

The Inquisitor’s Tale is marketed as middlegrade, but I think it could also have strong crossover appeal both in writing style and content (in that your average student doesn’t learn about medieval European history until 9th or 10th grade). Which makes me think Newbery thoughts…

The Inquisitor's Tale will be available September 27th.

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