Saturday, November 17, 2012

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

Jepp left his countryside home on the empty promise of a stranger, only to become a captive in a luxurious prison: Coudenberg Palace, the royal court of the Spanish Infanta. Nobody warned Jepp that as a court dwarf, daily injustices would become his seemingly unshakable fate.  He manages to escape from the palace, but is imprisoned again, alone in a cage. Spirited across Europe in a kidnapper’s carriage, Jepp fears where his unfortunate stars may lead him. But he can't even begin to imagine the brilliant and eccentric new master—a man devoted to uncovering the secrets of the stars—who awaits him. Or the girl who will help him mend his heart and unearth the long-buried secrets of his past.

This is a young adult historical novel written from a dwarf's perspective, which I found extremely interesting and engaging.  The author managed to keep her characters entirely in their time period, with no modernity creeping in.  And, there is real history incorporated into her fiction, which she tells us all about in an Author's note at the back of the book.

The real Jepp served the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe as his dwarf jester.  Diego Velazquez (a 17th century painter) did several portraits of court dwarfs like the one depicted below.

Court Dwarf Don Antonio el Ingles

There is a long history of dwarfs serving royal courts around the world.  Some held positions of power or prestige, but many more were collected as status symbols, mocked, and treated cruelly.  The indignities that Jepp and his fellow dwarfs suffer are not, sadly, fictional--but a composite of actual accounts from Renaissance-era European courts.

 I'm taking an astronomy class right now, where I learned about Tycho Brahe--a most interesting fellow--so, I especially loved reading Marsh's characterization of him.  Born into a powerful family of Danish nobles, Tycho developed a passion for astronomy--and its sister art of astrology.  When King Frederick awarded Tycho the island of Hven in the Oresund Strait to build an observatory, Uraniborg (or the Castle of the Heavens) was created.  In this castle was running water (including an indoor fountain); state-of-the-art astronomical equipment (some of which Brahe designed); a system of pulleys and bells that could summon servants and scholars; exotic gardens; and so much more.  Tycho entertained himself and his staff with lavish banquets and actually had a beer-drinking pet moose (which is introduced in Marsh's book).

But the real star in this book is the self-deprecating voice of Jepp, who was a witness to the emerging world of science and astronomy, and was trying to find out who he was in the process--whether his fate was truly subject to the stars or perhaps subject to his own manipulation of destiny.  And where does love fall in this equation? You really must read Marsh's book--a magical tale of an unusual hero and his extraordinary quest to become the master of his own destiny.

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