CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 21 . . . . February 10, 2017
This reviewer concurs with the awarding of the 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Awards for Older Readers to The Inquisitor's Tale. The author relates a complex compilation of tales to produce a fascinating and fast-paced journey for the reader as well as the three special children and an even more special dog at the centre of the novel. Jeanne, the author's active (re) envisioning of the Joan d'Arc legend, has convulsions and has visions. To complicate matters significantly, she has been seen with the venerated Greyhound, an act that smacks of heresy. Jeanne is joined on her expedition by 11-year-old William, a monk in training. William stands out because of his size (very tall), strength, and his dusky colouring due to his North African mother and crusader father. They are, in turn, joined by Jacob, a young Jewish boy who has just been recently and violently orphaned and who can heal any wound. And, of course, the dog. Their stories of their journey across France to attempt to save Jewish texts from the fires of the Inquisition are told, ala Chaucer-style, through various storytelling vignettes by several witnesses, a nun, fellow travellers and a mysterious narrator of the novel who are taking shelter at an inn. These tellers, per their own perspectives and voices regarding the children and the ongoing search for them, relate how the demons, dragons, monks, knights, and the King and Queen of France test the powers and convictions of the three children as they and the dog make their way to Mont-Saint-Michel. The narrative device having the children not being the active narrators of the action adds a delicious sense of eavesdropping and wonder for the reader and, eventually, a realization of the power of unreliable narrators.
The novel, an attractive package illuminated intricately with illustrations by Hatem Aly, explores, along with the basic adventure story, serious themes, such as the class system, religion, anti-Semitism, prejudice, and the definition of evil. There is, however, plenty of mild bawdy humour to balance the serious themes and occasional mild instance of bloodletting and violence. Well-researched and imagined, The Inquisitor's Tale includes factual historical characters: King Louis, Blanche of Castile, Jean de Joinville, Robert de Sorbonne, Roger Bacon, and Gwenforte the Holy Greyhound, and it incorporates several action events, such as the sinking of the knights in the quicksand, the losing and finding of The Holy Nail, and the burning of thousands of copies of the Talmud in Paris. Other elements from the novel are culled from legends of the Middle Ages: the dragon of the deadly farts and Jeanne's recognition of the true king in disguise. Besides being a delightful read, the heart of the novel is very pertinent and relevant to a contemporary young audience. Note that the author provides an annotated bibliography with titles for young people and adults for further research. The audio version with a full cast and a 13th century music soundtrack is now available. The author voices the character of the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor's Tale was a 2017 Newbery Honor Book.
Gail de Vos teaches at the School of Library and Information Studies for the University of Alberta. She is the author of nine books on storytelling and folklore.
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