Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Gypsy Crown -- a book review

Here's a book that I'm sorry to say, until it arrived in a box from the publisher, I had not even heard of. And I'm sorry I hadn't heard of it because it is wonderful and if life were fair, it would have built some good buzz by now. This just goes to prove the arbitrariness of what books get buzz and which ones run the risk of slipping quietly past. This is probably well-known in its native Australia, but it deserves some chitter-chatter here too -- and honestly, maybe it has been getting chitter-chatter; I'm not exactly "in the know."

So, The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth. Set in 1658 England, it's a fast-paced and poignant adventure story of two young Rom (gypsy) cousins trying desperately to figure out how to get their family out of jail, where they've been tossed for the crime of singing and dancing in public, and are awaiting execution. This is during the reign of Oliver Cromwell, a name that buzzed up from some deep well of my forgotten education -- perhaps your English history isn't buried as deeply as mine, but in case it is: Cromwell was a soldier who rose through the ranks and ended up becoming a regicidal dictator during a short period called the Commonwealth, when King Charles I was executed and his heir exiled.

In the book, it's portrayed as a time of staunch Protestant values -- enforced joylessness and rigidity fraught with the fear of spies and snitches, land confiscations, finger-pointing and betrayals. The gypsies are persecuted terribly, and here I think Forsyth has struck a good balance in depicting the brutality of history in a way middle-graders can digest. Violent and at times heart-breaking, the persecution is toned down but not made light of. Young Emilia and her cousin Luka are already victims when the story starts, and throughout they are hunted by a hard, cruel "crow" of a pastor and a heartless "thief-taker," and shown no mercy, though they are only children.

When their family is imprisoned, only Emilia and Luka escape -- with their dog, monkey, Arabian mare, and 600-lb. dancing bear -- and go on a journey to find their farflung kin to a) enlist their help, and b) retrieve the five gypsy charms that once hung from the same bracelet and were split apart, bringing an end to gypsy luck. As the charms are united, Emilia finds her nascent gifts as a drabardi (fortune-teller) are sharpening -- or is it, as Luka insists, merely luck? The children are forced to make heart-wrenching choices again and again, parting with the things dearest to them in the desperate effort to save everyone they love. And you really can feel, throughout, that the consequences if they fail would be dire. The book is filled with people who have lost their families and way of life, who live in fear. And yet there is levity and humor to relieve the sadness -- the animal characters are delightful, and will have kids begging for a monkey. The Rom way of life, their free spirit, their proverbs, are fascinating. Throw in a mysterious spy for the exiled prince, some colorful gypsy families, a glimpse of 17th Century London as well as the surrounding countryside, and you've got a great story.

My favorite kind of story: fast-paced, makes the page disappear as you fall right into the flow of events, and all the while, painlessly (not just painlessly, but enjoyably), you're learning stuff. Neat. Truly, there are many parallels to be made to the Cromwell era with its rigid, enforced morality and repression and intolerance, to things happening around the world today, summed up neatly by these words: ". . . we have our own way of doing things, but these pastors. . . they can't abide anyone not thinking or believing the same way they do." Yeah.

The Gypsy Crown is a Cybils nominee in the middle-grade fantasy/sci-fi category.

The cover above is the US edition; I had to photo it because the online graphics I could find were really stinky. Lovely cover, though, as are these two other editions I found pics of:

14 comments:

Gwenda said...

Ooh. This looks fab. I'll definitely look out for it.

TadMack said...

Ooh. Points for a good looking cover (especially the second one!) and the word "gypsy" in the title. Sounds great.

Melissa Muirhead said...

Thanks for finding this - I didn't realise she had a new book out. Her fantasy series are wonderful too and got me through the many hours awake during the night with a newborn and must have been really good as I would stay awake reading even after my baby had been fed, burped and back to sleep!

Charlotte said...

I think I like the white horse cover best....followed by number 2, but they are all nice.

tone almhjell said...

This sounds amazing! I like the characters already, just by the ring of their names.

Sheila Ruth said...

Sounds intriguing. I hadn't heard of this one, either. I'll have to check it out. I like cover #2 the best.

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

Thank you! That book, in any cover, is going straight to the top of my to-read list. Lately I'm loving "historical fantasy" -- and this one sounds wonderful.

Jen Robinson said...

Thanks, Laini. This one wasn't on my radar either, but you've convinced me to give it a look. I'm adding it to my "reviews that made me want the book" list.

myrna said...

That really sounds like something I would love. Thanks for the review.

jone said...

Sounds interesting, Laini. Are your eyes blurry from all that reading yet? Appreciated the review.

Sarah Rettger said...

And I wonder why my reading list never gets any shorter... this sounds great!

Kate Forsyth said...

Dear Laini

Thanks so much for your wonderful review! You've really made my day. I have been rather worried because no-one in the US seemed to be reading and reviewing 'The Gypsy Crown' even though it had done so well in the UK and Australia. I guess it's just such a big market and so many other wonderful books to read. So I'm really happy you discovered it, and liked it so much.
many, many thanks
Kate Forsyth

Sharon said...

...i have read the whole Chain of Charms series and its just brilliant! i loved it so much i even started a Facebook group for the books:

http://groups.to/chainofcharms

can i just say that i am 37 and have no children, i bought these books and read for my own enjoyment! they are just as wonderful for adult readers.

Anonymous said...

These are the most wonderful interesting books I have ever read and they have really good info in the facts behind the fiction.
I'm really sad that you don't have any more books in the series.
I'm 10 and have almost finished the last book in the series. Guess what?! I'm going to read the first book last as I was given the 2nd book for christmas and have kept moving up.
I don't know what I would do without your books!!!!!!!!!!!!!