Author: James Comins
Genre: Young Adult, gay romance, historical
Publisher: Wayward Ink Publishing
Published: 22nd May 2015
In the year of our Lord 1040, fourteen-year-old aspiring jester Tom is en route to Bath to begin his studies in the art of being a Fool, following in the footsteps of his father, and his father before him.
Along the way he meets Malcolm, a fire-haired boy with eyes green as forest glass. A Scotsman who's escaped from the ravages of the usurper Macbeth, Malcolm elects to join Tom at school. Though the journey to Bath is hazardous, it pales in comparison to what they face at the austere and vicious Fool School, where all is not as it seems. A court jester must aim to be the lowest rung on the ladder of life, and the headmaster will not abide pride.
As they journey through life's hardships together, Tom and Malcolm find they only have each other to depend upon.
I’m not too sure where to begin with reviewing this story so I’ll start with the basics and sort of feel my way into it.
It’s Young Adult – Tom the narrator is 14 but small for his age and has a combination of innocence and worldliness that rings very true for a period when any child, no matter how small, might well be taken to see a beheading for entertainment and long before things like ages of consent had been dreamed up. In fact there is a scene early in the book where Tom, abandoned at the port by his drunk of a father, resigns himself to having to put out in order to get a comfortable night’s lodging. Instead he is lucky enough to meet Malcolm, dispossessed Scottish prince, who offers him passage by ship to England and so their adventures together begin.
“Men hurry, doing rope things and sail things and wood things. I don’t even know what any of this machinery is called. Boat Stuff.”
It’s historical – Malcolm is a genuine historical character. Eldest son of Duncan, the king of Scotland so famously slain by Macbeth, Malcolm was taken to safety until of an age to attempt to regain the throne. The book is full of sly historical jokes, jolting deliberate anachronisms, little half remembered tales and stories that refer to other stories – very much the stock in trade of the jester who needed to be twice as intelligent as his audience but be very careful not to show it. Scenes in towns and churches are neatly described without too much information but paint vivid images. The School in particular, part Hogwarts, part Dotheboys Hall, has some marvellous set pieces.
“It’s impossible to maintain passionate emotions while tumping a tiny drum. Try it if you don’t believe me.”
The book is funny. There are moments of broad slapstick humour, sharply observed satire, puns and wordplay, and funny situations turned on their heads. It’s also horrific in its depiction of a simpler age where anything unusual was blamed on gods and devils, punishments could be immediate and vile, and medical treatment could be even worse.
“I feel the presence of Death on this road. The constant dancer, the whirl of voices silenced, the trailing edges of that black cloak, the bone silver of his scythe.”
One of the greatest joys of the book is the narrative voice of Tom the trainee fool. Son and grandson of professional fools, he has no thought of following any other profession and has been assisting his father, a spendthrift drunk, since he was old enough to carry a tune. Tom is not what one might describe as a good boy, definitely not hero material. He is gullible, cowardly, vain and prone to glorious flights of fancy, especially when under stress. His imaginings intrude into the narrative in such a way that I often accepted that they were happening until they got too bizarre or Tom had a better idea and redacted them or something happened to interrupt his train of thought. He also has a philosophical turn of mind that made for some very poignant moments.
“I mourn this absence of open childish eyes. Then I remember my own childhood, sitting in wagons, listening to my father fuck prostitutes, and it occurs to me I never had a childhood of magical dreams.”
His relationship with Malcolm is the romantic element. They cling to each other for comfort and support in the face of peril – older bullying students, weird professors, bizarre characters met outside the school – but it is not really an equal relationship. Tom ‘belongs’ to Malcolm, giving him the deference owed to a king in exile. But love is there too, displayed in very subtle gestures and acts rather than in broad terms or explicit sex scenes.
“I feel like much of human nature springs from a desire to stop being human for a moment or two. We desire to be raw low animals, or bright glowing angels, but nothing in-between. What bliss to be mindless, choiceless. No wonder we give ourselves kings.”
I think this is probably the most exhilarating book I’ve read this year. That said it did tail off towards the end and I was left feeling that more needed to be said. It’s like that uncomfortable moment when you’ve drawn breath to sneeze and then don’t. I’m hoping – REALLY hoping – that there’s going to be a sequel to continue the story, and if there is a sequel I’ll be elbowing my way to the front of the queue.
Meet James Comins
JAMES COMINS is incapable of writing about himself in the third person. His future autobiography will probably be titled, “The Man Who Groaned His Way Toward Death.” He writes stories for children and adults.
Born down the street from Stephen King, he now divides his time between Denver and Seattle.