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Review: Jepp, Who Defied The Stars December 28, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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Jepp, who defied the StarsJust when I thought that the year was so close to being over that there were no really fantastic new books to discover, a title came along to surprise me! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised. The author is Katherine Marsh who wrote The Night Tourist, one of my favorite Greek mythology influenced mysteries. In Jepp, she also begins by looking back in time, to Europe in the 1500’s.

Jepp is a little person living with his mother in a inn in Astraveld, part of the Spanish Netherlands in the sixteenth century. He narrates the first third of the book as an exercise in looking back and considering the choice he made (or is it a choice?) to leave his home and become a court dwarf, an amusement for the Spanish Infanta at Coudenberg Palace. Although he thought it was going to be a step up in the world, the humiliations for both him and a new friend became too much to bear and he masterminded an escape. Now he has been caught, his friend is gone, and he is on his way to an unknown fate. The second and third parts of the book are narrated by Jepp in the present, as he becomes part of the household of Tycho Brahe, a most unusual astronomer and master, and later when he leaves to truly solve the mystery of who he is.

Marsh builds a fascinating world in both the Infanta’s palace and Tycho’s unconventional household at Uraniborg in Denmark. Jepp’s memories and observations of rooms, clothing, food and the skits the dwarves are made to perform are precisely drawn and add up to something in between a paradise and a prison. While some of the supporting characters could have been given more depth, the other dwarves and courtiers, as well as Tycho’s daughter Magdalene jump off the page as real individuals. The one place the book fell a little flat for me was in the ending, where everything was wrapped up just a little too easily for my taste. This is a relatively minor flaw, however. Jepp is a wonderful book for readers who like historical fiction and outsider protagonists. Jepp may be little, but his dilemma is timeless, as everyone has struggled with the desire to control his or her own life and the fear that much of what happens to us is foreordained. Marsh has no easy answers for us, just a great story to keep us thinking about the world and our place in it.

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