King of Shadows, by Susan Cooper, is the first book that Michele Fry selected for the Scholar's Blog Book Discussion Group. It's about Nat Field, an aspiring actor who travels to London for the summer as part of The Company of Boys. They'll be performing Shakespearean plays at the new Globe theater, an exact copy of the original. Nat is scheduled to play Puck, to his older mentor Gil's Oberon.
Once he gets to London, however, things get a bit strange for young Nat. He starts displaying alarming symptoms of illness, and wakes up to find himself 400 years back in time, in 1599 London, rehearsing at the original Globe Theater. He seems to have replaced (and been replaced by in his own time) another Nat Field. He has a bit of trouble adapting (quite different hygiene, food, and clothing in Elizabethan London), but considers all of the hardship worthwhile when he meets his idol, William Shakespeare. Here's the scene where they first meet.
He poked me in the back. "Greet Master Shakespeare, boy."
Shakespeare. William Shakespeare.
It was as if he's said, "Say hello to God."
... (to the end of the first meeting)
I looked at the lines on his face, and at his ordinary brown doublet and hose, and I thought: Don't go, please don't go. It wasn't because he was William Shakespeare. I just knew that I liked being with him, more than with anyone I knew.
Yes, Nat reveres Shakespeare. But, in Susan Cooper's interpretation, he gets to know his hero, too. This is a book for fans of the theater, make no mistake about that. The text is littered with quotes from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. A Midsummer Night's Dream features prominently. There is all sorts of behind the scenes trivia about putting on plays hundreds of years ago and today. We get snapshots of the relationships between director, cast, crew, and audience. And we get a sense of what it feels like to be part of the world of the stage. Here's a scene where Nat is listening to Shakespeare perform:
I stood behind the stage hangings, listening. He had a wonderful voice, clear and warm and sort of mid-brown. I was as happy at that moment as I think I'll ever be: standing there listening to him, knowing I was part -- and a useful part, just now -- of his company, safe in the small family world of the theater. I wanted it never to end.
This is also a historical novel, and Cooper fills it with details of life in 1599 London: the smells, the sounds, the food, the chamber pots, and even the cock fighting. Nat's modern-day perspective on these things leads to many small moments of humor. He wishes that he could give Will a ball-point pen. He's nauseated by the cock fighting (and the treatment of criminals). He has this perspective on ale:
Ale, they called it, and it was the main thing I drank in all my time there; a weak homemade ale was the main thing everybody drank, from morning till night. You could say that the whole population of Elizabethan England was slightly buzzed all day long.
I like Cooper's wit, as she writes passages like the above. I think that fans of time travel stories, fans of Shakespeare, and people interested in the theater, will enjoy this book. Others will, too, because Susan Cooper is an excellent writer, with a nice turn of phrase, and a clear communication style.
Personally, I do have a couple of issues with the book. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying. I know that it's hard to explain a time travel story without having loopholes or paradoxes. But, without giving anything away, this one seemed a bit contrived. I was expecting more. I also felt that Shakespeare was put up on a bit too much of a pedestal. Nat continues to see him, not quite as God perhaps, but certainly like a Jesus savior-type figure. The God figure is actually someone else. But whenever Nat refers to Shakespeare as "him", I felt like it might as well have been capitalized.
But perhaps I'm guilty of reading too critically, because I was reading for a book club. I did enjoy King of Shadows, and I had a definite crush on Will Shakespeare as portrayed here. I think that other Susan Cooper fans will enjoy this book, too.
Book: King of Shadows
Author: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Original Publication Date: 1999
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Miss Erin and Scholar's Blog
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.