Author: Katherine Marsh
Publication Year: 2012
Read: June 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Rating: 4 Stars
Jepp, a teenaged dwarf at the close of the sixteenth century, leaves his quiet life at his mother’s inn to see the world and have a finer life at the palace of the Spanish Infanta. The promised finery, however, comes at the price of humiliating work aiding the court jester. Eventually Jepp finds himself sharing a room with a beer-drinking moose and reduced to picking up his master’s prosthetic nose. Although his horoscope promises many things, it isn’t until Jepp starts to take action that his stars can begin to make sense.
Jepp is a pleasing YA historical fiction novel. Author Katherine Marsh found several ideas in her research, and wove them together into an interesting story with multifaceted characters. The setting of the intermediate section offers the perfect transition for Jepp—the castle of Tycho Brahe, an early astronomer, has an unorthodoxy that can inspire Jepp, and a fascinating landscape of contradictions for readers: despite doing work in science, everyone takes their horoscopes seriously; Lord Brahe’s liberal enough to live with a commoner wife, but he makes his employed dwarf sit under the dinner table and eat only scraps; there are inventions like automatons and running water, however all their astronomy work must be done without a telescope.
Jepp is a particularly good character. He’s at point of life where he is beginning to question things and piece together his observations. He’s kind yet not self-sacrificing; smart yet not a prodigy; assertive yet largely cautious. When he falls in love, it’s cheer-worthy (plus his love interest is an imperfect, interesting and smart character in her own right).
To round out the good of the book, Jepp’s struggle to determine whether his star-chart controls his destiny is an extended consideration about the role of fate vs. self-determination. In some ways the question Jepp asks is a dated one—most people today do not commission astrological charts for their birthdays, or take them seriously if they do see one—but it speaks to the eternal question we ask about what makes us ourselves. To see beyond your role in your school/family/world and find who you are without the trappings is worth striving for at any age, and we can all hope for the clarity Jepp achieves.