This has not been a year of strong novels for me, so I was thrilled to unearth this gem of a debut by American writer Dana Chamblee Carpenter in, of all places, a BBC Books email. My initial response to the promotional materials was lukewarm, and the jacket copy does very little to give the reader a true sense of the writing (in all honesty, it gives off vibes of an overwrought YA novel). I highly recommend readers base their decision as to whether or not to read this novel off from reviews.
It is difficult to classify this book: is it historical fiction? Fantasy? Magical Realism? In that lack of secure genre identity, readers finds themselves immersed in a book that suspends them somewhere between them all. The position was, for me, a rather uncomfortable one. At first flush, the plot is definitely a work of historical fiction, set during the High Middle Ages in Bohemia (roughly Czechoslovakia today). However, the more the main character, a teen-age girl with the rather unassuming name of Mouse, is revealed, the more the reader comes to recognize that there is far more to her—and the world she lives in—than meets the eye.
Mouse is a person of indeterminate ancestry, which is pivotal to the plot, and the secret of which is unfolded in a wonderfully skillful manner as the novel progresses. On the surface, she is a convent orphan who catches the eye of a king through her gift of the knowledge of healing, leading to a foray into another lifestyle entirely. You can see from that seemingly unoriginal plot line where the cringe-worthy YA comparison might come from, but what sets Ms. Carpenter’s novel on a higher plain—this is most definitely not YA material—is where she takes her character, how events change Mouse, and in the end, the shattering truths that are revealed and how Mouse reacts to the knowledge. From there the reader careens through to the stunning conclusion, crafted with one twist after another.
Perhaps what amazed me the most about the novel was that despite how fantastical the novel was at times, I never once felt like it went beyond the boundaries of belief. And believe me, it gets right out there. In general, I am not a fan of magical realism, but Mouse was so confidently rendered that her powers and her path felt completely authentic, wholly believable. I came to this book as a reader of historical fiction and emerged having been steeped in so much more.
Even if you are not a fan of fantasy or magical realism, I would recommend this one to readers who love well-researched historical fiction. Readers are completely immersed in the time period, and as an example of the genre, it is excellent. If you are a lover of magical realism, you will find in the novel a wonderfully original setting and unique usage of magical realism to propel the plot forward. Lovers of fantasy, especially those who love fantasy with a Middle Ages feel, will feel right at home in this novel. The novel can be dark at times, with themes that are definitely for adult readers.