justice_turtle: Image of the TARDIS in a field on a sunny day (Kermitpire)
justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-07-29 01:30 pm

Review: The Boy Who Was (Grace Taber Hallock)

Summary: A young goatherd in South Italy receives the gift of eternal life from a Siren and is tangentially involved in the Naples area's important historical moments over the next 3,000 years. He briefly meets Odysseus and Poseidon (separately), befriends the Emperor Tiberius offscreen, rescues a young Jewish slave girl from Pompeii and (separately) a Goth soldier from some Byzantine soldiers, observes some Normans defeating Saracen pirates, hears about the Children's Crusade, gets involved on the side of the Hohenstaufens against Charles "the Lame" of Anjou, makes judgey noises about the Muslim pirate captain Barbarossa, and assists Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Reaction: On the one hand, I was really epically impressed by the amount of detail research the author obviously did, and by the light hand with which she distributed the details to draw a clean, memorable picture. I was also massively impressed by the illustrator, Harrie Wood (definitely not the Australian civil servant), who did a full-page illustration in period style for the beginning of each chapter.

On the other hand, after a rather hopeful first chapter or two with sympathetic Sirens (no, I don't even know) and a balanced treatment of a kindly pagan Roman slaveowner versus a young Jewish slave, the writing kind of devolved into "sympathize with THIS side!", and every single time it was the whiter side. (Except I don't know about Charles of Anjou versus the Hohenstaufens. Was there a whiter side in that one?) Every time. I quit on the chapter about Barbarossa the Muslim pirate, because the writing was all about how he was EVILLY EVIL and really he was a pretty cool guy. He just did his pirating at Europeans instead of at brown people, like proper European pirates do. *end ALL THE SNARK*

I learned a massive amount from all the Wiki-searching I did to check things this book was saying, though. It was packed chock-full of references to historical events and characters I'd never heard of before. I wouldn't have wanted to read it pre-Google - there wasn't quite enough background provided to help check anything - but I enjoyed it as it stood.

Conclusion: Three stars, out of five possible. It wasn't bad, it just could have been so much better, and all it would have taken is some more balanced writing. It came so close.

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