CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 12. . . .November 23, 2012.
Tobin Morgenstar is far away from home in the scene quoted above. He's travelling with a troupe of puppeteers, stopping at villages to perform plays, never sure of his next meal. It's a world away from what he's used to as the mayor's son in the town of Cradoc in the small kingdom of Shadonia.
At the time of the story's opening, Shadonia is, to forgive the pun, under the shadow of their Forenzian conquerors, his father a 'toady' to the Forenzian regiment stationed at Cradoc, and the spirit of the Shadonian people broken, their cultural traditions no longer passed on from generation to generation. Tobin is an exception. His grandmother taught him stories and songs of the land and its people.
Tobin's affinity for Shadonian culture isn't the only thing that sets him apart; he has the ability to blend into his surroundings so that he slips out of the notice of people and almost achieves invisibility by sheer effort of his mind. As he embraces the stories of the Shadonia of old, the more he disdains the way Shadonia is now, aping Forenzian culture and forgetting their own.
It's no wonder Tobin is captured by the message of a troupe of travelling puppeteers. Sneaking out to watch their plays, Tobin also overhears how the puppeteers may be in danger of arrest from the Forenzians. After all, their plays are thinly veiled allegories about the Shadonians' need to throw off the shackles of Forenzian overlords. While Tobin continues to question his identity, his one source of stability, his grandmother, passes away, but not without entrusting to him an ancient pipe that she asks him to use when Shadonia is in need of it.
Bewildered by the sudden loss of his grandmother, Tobin impulsively decides to throw in his fortunes with the travelling puppeteers, warning them of how the Forenzian military sought to arrest them for inciting rebellion against the Forenzians. At a critical juncture of pursuit, Tobin blows on his pipe and causes a not-quite-liquid, not-quite-mist to rise from the river, the Spirit of the river, to crash down on the Forenzians, thereby allowing the troupe to escape unharmed. This happening wins Tobin their trust as the high-born young man is now on the run from the authorities with this band of would-be political rebels. The players are Balm, his wife Ella, and their beautiful daughter Gaby (hint: Tobin develops feelings for her). They spread the word about a folk hero named Bloody Bartholomew who defies Forenzian rule and is a rallying point for the Shadonians. Could one of the players also be Bloody Bartholomew, himself? And where does Tobin stand, and how far will he go to protect the Shadonian way of life if it means the certain death of Forenzians?
This is a story with strong foundations, and Tobin's struggles with the implications of belief put into action are evoked with sympathy and insight. Nevertheless, details that make a story fully believable are not richly hued as Smith may have intended them to be since The Piper of Shadonia was her last work before her untimely death in 2007. As it stands, the story leaves the reader wanting more details about what exactly sets Shadonian culture apart from Forenzians, more political intrigue and suspense for the puppeteer troupe, and more about Tobin's unusual abilities (could he only blend into his surroundings, or does he have other abilities?). The world of Shadonia is vaguely medieval, but it'd be interesting to have more of its minutiae and cultural practices embedded into the narrative. For example, what are the ancient stories that Tobin's grandmother shares with him? Nevertheless, the story ends with a surprising and satisfying conclusion as Tobin carves a path for himself that is neither pro-rebel nor pro-Forenzian empire, a way that allows him, just as Balm says, to "jump over those fences and be part of the land."
My one other caveat is the rather unattractive cover, which may be a deterrent to teens from picking up the book. If teens who enjoy historical fiction give The Piper of Shadonia a chance, however, they would probably be pleasantly surprised by the story's thoughtful exploration of its premise.
Ellen Wu is the teen services librarian of Surrey Libraries in Surrey, BC.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.