2.09.2011

Book Review: The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh

The idea of a dead angel buried behind an abbey caught my attention. The story actually turned out to be less about angels and more about fairy folklore, but this did not at all disappoint me.

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh

Pros: Brilliantly researched, deft handling of historical, religious, and folkloric themes, writing doesn't feel "simplified" for kids.
Cons: Quite a few loose ends because it's the first book of a trilogy, protagonist is a good boy but not particularly unique or engaging.

Intellectual Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: A-

Book Blurb: It's 1347 and fifteen-year-old Will, an orphan boy, lives at Crowfield Abbey. Sent into the forest to gather wood, he rescues instead, a creature from a trap - a hob, who shares with Will a terrible secret. Somewhere in the forest behind the abbey where he lives,is a grave. And buried deep in the snow is an angel. But how can an angel die? What has it to do with the monks of the Abbey? When two hooded strangers arrive at Crowfield asking questions about the angel's grave, Will is drawn into a world of dangerous Old Magic.

Alz's Take: This book is touted as MG and I approached it with that mindset. Several chapters in, I had to reset my expectations—this book doesn't read "young" or as if it's been simplified or dumbed-down to suit younger audiences. The language is neither under- nor over-sophisticated, and a few of the events and some of the subject matter are indeed chilling (as they are meant to be). Additionally, life in medieval England wasn't exactly a clean, safe, child-friendly thing, and the book reflects that reality. Gratuitous? No. Graphic? Sometimes. Fitting and deftly handled? Yes.

The other thing that amazed me was how much research Pat Walsh put into this novel—though admittedly I boast no great knowledge of what life was like in an English abbey, I never questioned the authenticity of anything and was fully immersed in England in the year 1347. There's even a glossary in the back for unfamiliar terms and further details about abbey life, though everything can easily be understood through context. I loved how the author was able to recreate an engrossing and historically accurate world without infodumps or tedious overbearing detail.

14-year-old William has to deal with living at a rundown old abbey—he has to earn his keep since he was given over into the abbey's care when he was orphaned by a fire. It's not a bad life, as such, for he has food to eat and a place to sleep and has a father figure and mentor in Brother Snail, whose hunched back earned him his nickname.

Then William finds an injured hob in the woods, an event that will change William's life forever. What is a hob? It's a fairy creature of sorts, and what I like about the way this book is written is that there is no single long description of the hob or what it is. Instead you receive an impression via bits and pieces of description—green eyes, beechnut-colored skin and reddish fur—enough for you to imagine what it looks like without being told straight out. The rest of the book goes in a similar vein, with concrete imagery, facts, and details to set a scene, and then passing descriptions of other things that are, in fact, quite skillfully done so that your imagination fills in everything else.

On the other hand, I have to admit that a few times I did wonder, specifically and exactly, what the hob/etc. looked like, and I can also see how the occasional glossing-over of some details might annoy some readers in the long run. The narration is third-person and varies between distant and close. I would have preferred being closer to William's perspective; as it is, I felt like I was watching everything from a nearby vantage, rather than being in William's head. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it contributed to my not feeling as close a connection to William as I might have liked.

The hob is William's (and the reader's) introduction to the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and fairy creatures, and he gives William guidance as a pair of wealthy but mysterious strangers come to stay at the abbey: a bard named Mr. Bone and his bodyguard Shadlok, but the former is a leper and the latter is forbiddingly grim. And what is this talk among the abbots that William overhears about an angel buried somewhere nearby? How can an angel be dead—what killed it, and who buried it, and why?

This setup and these intriguing bits of information were enough to keep me interested and invested throughout the book, particularly as William proves to be a practical and identifiable young protagonist who cares for his friends and understands his situation even as he dreams, wistfully, of greater things. Though I liked William, I didn't love him, and while he's a sturdy steadfast boy, there are tons of sturdy and steadfast boy protagonists populating the field of YA and MG literature. Brother Snail and Shadlok, for instance, seemed to have more history and depth to them, whereas William felt a bit like Bob Everyboy. He is neither the most unique nor memorable of characters.

No, what makes this book so good is the setting, the medieval life and the intersection of Christianity and fay lore, and the boy being dragged into its midst. The mood is fairly serious and the tone ranges from gloomy to grim, but William lights the way for us, a little spark of fear and courage in the dark. William accepts with equanimity the fact that angels exist as well as the hob and old gods and fairies, as does Brother Snail, though Brother Snail of course warns William to not go blabbing these things about since they do, after all, live in an abbey. The Crowfield Curse occasionally touches upon but does not focus on the struggle, pursuit, reconciliation, or persecution of faith or superstition, and I'm glad that it didn't venture into this territory.

I thought the book was standalone when I read it so I was a little surprised at how many loose ends were left dangling—which told me that there was probably going to be a sequel. A quick Google search later and yep, there is indeed a second book coming out, The Crowfield Demon, much to my joy. I'd rate my end-satisfaction at a brisk 85% because there was sufficient resolution and sense of moving on for me to nod my head and say, "Okay, that's good enough, even if there isn't total closure." There were enough looming threats and potentialities on the horizon, however, as well as some unanswered (but not Hugely Unanswered) questions that I really look forward to the second book.

Alz's Conclusion: The Crowfield Curse is a beautifully-written, realistic, well-researched book about angels, fay folk, and a boy named William living at an English abbey in the 1300s. Though William is not a particularly unique protagonist, the solid authenticity of the world around him and how he is unwillingly drawn into the world of the fay provides more than enough intrigue.

5 comments:

Nicole MacDonald said...

Okay, I WANT to read this! Off to add it to my goodreads list :)

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ali said...

Wow, what a thoughtful review, thanks Alz!

Icy Roses said...

This sounds good! I love a good historical fantasy. Thanks for the in-depth review. :)

Connie said...

Oooo. I'm adding this to my to-be-read-list. Thanks for the review.

Alz said...

Nicole - Crowfield was good, and a pretty fast read too. :)

Ali - Thanks!

Icy Roses - I haven't read that many historical fantasies myself (not that I can name off the top of my head, anyway) but I think I've acquired a taste for them now.

Connie - You're welcome!