[A copy of this book was provided to me by Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.]
I feel like if I were to have a catchphrase, it would be “X novel wasn’t what I was expecting”. Although I enjoyed nonfiction Medieval Christian Literature (particularly Hildegard of Bingen or Teresa of Avila), I’ve never enjoyed the fiction aspect of it. Perhaps it’s just too raw and comes too close to being preachy or maybe it’s because aspects of the Christianity that existed then still exist today. Especially when it comes to the Crusades.
The closest I’ve come to being fascinated the Crusades was when I was watching Kingdom of Heaven and that may just have been because it starred Orlando Bloom.
I’m honestly not sure, but despite any misgivings that I may have had about the genre, The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr took me by surprise.
First off, it was surprisingly gory for a young adult novel and filled with excruciating details about the crusades. I expected a more sanitized version of events. Even with the demons that are frolicking about (whoops, forgot to mention the demons), I trusted that young adult would spare me any of the gory details. I was incredibly wrong and if you can’t hand a novel that talks about rape (although not as directly as it could), gruesomely kills children off-page, mutilates men, and isn’t above killing/maiming pregnant women, then this isn’t the novel for you.
We start by following Luca de Falconi, a boy who’s desperate to save the life of his father, the Conte de Falconi. He can see demons and has always been able to, but they become even more clear after his father shows him a secret book that has been in the family for generations. Men are being called to the crusades and asked to fight a holy war, but Luca can’t feel anything but dread. He knows that if his father leaves alone, if Luca isn’t there to protect him, then the Conte de Falconi is as good as doomed.
The biggest selling point of the book, beyond the evocative way that it describes the demons in it, is that it doesn’t shy away from the terrible religious fervor that people feel. Yes, it places the blame for some of the worst offenses on demonkind, but The Book of Whispers makes it quite clear that men are more than capable of horrendous violence on their own.
Through the eyes of Luca and later, Susan (a young girl who was raised in a convent by her mute mother), the history of the Crusades is made digestible. Not palatable, no, the history is far from palatable, but we are shown the events of the Crusades through two sympathetic main characters. Luca and Susan are thankfully more socially advanced than any of the other characters in the book and we empathize with them because we can share their frustration in having the right answers, but never being believed. They are the few characters in the book who question the death and destruction of the Christian Crusaders.
Beyond that, Luca and Susan were alright. Not good, not bad, but serviceable as vehicles to the more interesting demons and setting that we were craving. Aside from being frustrated by how often they seemed to miss important events, I enjoyed the setting and the mystery of The Book of Whispers. The first and second time they were taken out of the action, I thought it was fine, but by the time we reached the third time, I found that my annoyance retroactively tainted the first two times.
If you’re looking for a unique and well-written historical fiction novel, then young adult or no, The Book of Whispers is well worth your time.
Surprising AF and a shock to the system.
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