Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

[description from goodreads]

Is it written in the stars from the moment we are born? 
Or is it a bendable thing that we can shape with our own hands? 

Jepp of Astraveld needs to know. 

He 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. If the humiliations were his alone, perhaps he could endure them; but it breaks Jepp’s heart to see his friend Lia suffer. 

After Jepp and Lia attempt a daring escape from the palace, Jepp is imprisoned again, alone in a cage. Now, 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.

Masterfully written, grippingly paced, and inspired by real histori­cal characters, Jepp, Who Defied the Stars is the tale of an extraordinary hero and his inspiring quest to become the master of his own destiny.


I'm not sure what it is about the title Jepp, Who Defied the Stars that I like so much, but it's been in the back of my mind since I first got my hands on this book. Something about it is just so subtly lyrical and fantastical; I actually put off reading the book for so long because I didn't want it to not live up to its beautiful name. It turns out that I had no reason to fear, because although the book is nowhere near perfect, it sure has the magic its title hints at. 

The most striking, and by far the best, part of Jepp, Who Defied the Stars is the very pretty way in which it is written. Take, for example, this random passage I found flipping back in the first few pages: 
Her eyes could flash stern enough to shame the rowdiest drunk or-- upon viewing a mewling kitten or another of the hapless creatures she so enjoyed-- crinkle with mirth. The remaining families of Astraveld, who felt deep gratitude toward her, showered me with affection and praise. As the popularity of the inn grew but I did not, I attributed the laughter and smiles of passing travelers to the love owed me as prince of my mother's spirited kingdom (4).
Not the most descriptive language in the world, nor made of the most impressive words, but things like "mewling" or "crinkle with mirth" give enough description of happiness without being distractingly long. I also chose this passage because it contains the name of "Astraveld" as well as the phrase "spirited kingdom;" that name, as well as most of the others in this book, sound like they are straight from fantasy, and their prevalence make the story as a whole seem otherworldy too. However, there isn't actually any magic in this book. It's a piece of historical fiction, but it's far from dry and boring. Instead, the writing flows perfectly and makes everything seem it comes straight from the stars Jepp so often thinks about.

The positively lovely writing of this book made me happy enough to not care so much about the rest of the novel. The premise is great-- a fictionalized version of what happened with real court dwarves and the real Jepp in the sixteenth century-- and something so delightfully original that it caught my attention immediately and never let up. I loved reading about the court life and Jepp's adventures elsewhere in the kingdom, because he absorbs and describes his surroundings without ever dumping too much information at once; it's a much more subtle world-building. However, even with my enjoyment, I must admit this book is woefully slow. So slow that I'm sure some people will not be able to get past it, which makes sense because even I was wondering why it took so long for Jepp to stop gallivanting around and take some action. Despite all the places Jepp goes, and the people he meets, there's just not much in this book that feels exciting or inspires a particularly emotional reaction. Jepp describes his feelings for people, for example, but it's in the same way he discusses his home and the court and everything else in the story, so his emotions don't stick out very well. If the narrative could move from being "pretty" into "emotional," I would have loved it even more.

It lacks a sense of adventure, but Jepp, Who Defied the Stars is so lovely in its writing, world-building, and mood, that even without an emotional connection, I absolutely adored it.

Book details: Hyperion/Hardcover/$16.99

Source: sent by publisher for review

1 comment:

  1. Well written review. Now I'm not so sure I'm interested after reading your thoughts. I don't know if the pacing is tolerable for me. The plot and discovering how a dwarf fared in historical times is a very unique setting. As creative as it sounds, it might not be enough to make up for the slowness you describe. I'm with you on the writing - sounds beautiful.