Reviewed by Caroline Hodges
Pages - 386
Published by Hot Key Books in November 2012
Being a court dwarf is no easy task. I know because I failed at it.
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 strange and 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 unshakeable 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 perform a daring escape from the palace, Jepp is imprisoned again, alone in a cage. Now, spirited across Europe by a kidnapper in a horse-drawn carriage, Jepp is unsure where his unfortunate stars may lead him.
Before Jepp can become the master of his own destiny, he will need to prove himself to a brilliant and eccentric new master—a man devoted to uncovering the secrets of the stars—earn the love of a girl brave and true, and unearth the long-buried secrets of his parentage. And he will find that beneath the breathtaking cruelty of the world is something else: the persistence of human kindness.
In early July, Vivienne offered me a range of new books coming from Hot Key Books from which to choose one to review. I looked up the synopsis of each and was immediately struck by just how unique Jepp, Who Defied the Stars promised to be. A novel where the main protagonist is a court dwarf in the late 1500’s? Whoa! Sign me up!
Jepp’s tale is one of prejudice, fate and mastering destiny and most importantly of all; love. The story is woven with superb detail, from the Infanta’s palace and the fabulous clothes and furnishings, to the Danish castle of the eccentric astronomer Tycho Brahe. Although I’m definitely a fan of the lavishness of court, to an extent I have read about this before, so for me the second part of the novel with its automatons, beer-drinking moose and a master who’s prosthetic nose keeps falling off really had me giggling.
Jepp’s perspective is different to most. Being a dwarf, not only does navigating normal furniture prove a difficulty, but the way in which people interact with him is at best curious interest and at worst total debasement – not only does he experience playing room mate to aforementioned drunk moose, at one point he is even ferried about in a cage! His time at court also proves that even the most decadent palace can be a prison. But from Jepp we learn no matter how different in stature, we all want similar things from life; to better ourselves, to love and be loved in return.
The first person perspective method of storytelling in this novel reminded me of The Farseer Trilogy by one of my favourite author’s; Robin Hobb. Though this isn’t a fantasy novel in the typical sense, Jepp’s thoughts and feelings about how the situations he finds himself in are honest and realistic; his decisions always based on what is morally right, no matter if he would be well entitled to a bit of vengeance. Though a novel aimed at children/young adults, I found Jepp, Who Defied the Stars surprisingly mature in the way in which the characters and story is presented. It is doesn’t patronise the younger reader and makes no qualms about presenting the cruelty human-kind is capable of.
Aside from our hero, other characters to make an impression include Matheus the kind-hearted kidnapper, Lia; Jepp’s first love, lady dwarf and delicate musician and the astronomer Tycho who breaks boundaries not only in science but in convention by marrying the woman he loved. The only flaw I found was that despite the title of the novel, I felt a bit like Jepp, in money matters at least, was in fact reliant on his fate. I would have liked to see him come up with a genius business idea or something to make his own fortune.
I am a big fan of historical fiction, but this particular era I didn’t know too much about. I seriously didn’t realise just how linked the novel was to the history of the time – many of the characters, settings and situations were real and it’s really worth reading the author’s notes at the end to really appreciate the genius of how this novel is put together.
If you are looking for a brilliant little novel with a unique storyline and varied mix of lovable and despicable characters, you couldn’t make a better choice.