Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson

If you look through my reviews, you will find very few books that have no mystical element to them. Generally, I stick to the fantasy genre, but The Gentleman Poet intrigued me, and I just had to try it. I found it through a meme. Both I and another blogger posted about books based on Shakespeare's The Tempest (what are the odds?). I happened to see it at the library in on the new fiction shelf this week.

En route to the Americas in 1609, Elizabeth Persons, a young servant girl, sees her blinding headache as an ominous sign. Sure enough, a hurricane during the final leg of their journey tosses the ill-fated Sea Venture and its one hundred and fifty passengers and crew onto the dreaded shores of the Bermudas, the rumored home of evil spirits and dangerous natives. 

In the months that pass—time marked by grave hardship, mutiny, adventure, danger . . . and a blossoming love between Elizabeth and the wrecked ship's young cook—she despairs of their ever being rescued. But she finds hope and strength in a remarkable new friendship, forming a fast bond with the Sea Venture's historian, a poet traveling under the name of William Strachey. But Will is more than he seems. To many back home in England, he is known by a different name: Shakespeare. And he sees in their great shared travails the makings of a magical, truly transcendent work of theater.

This book was an easy, fast read for me. The print is huge, and the book itself is much shorter than what I'm used to. Johnson's prose is beautiful but not flowery, and Elizabeth is a clever narrator. Her observations made me giggle in a few places, and she seemed to be a very real character for me. I think that was my favorite part of this book...I could picture all the characters with ease and they were very fleshed out and realistic. Their reasons for being the way they were made sense. Oftentimes, authors miss a plausible backstory to characters.

Dread Bermuda, where most of the novel takes place, is not the dangerous, horrible place the castaways expected. They rightly describe it as paradise, lush with vegetation, animal life, and mostly beautiful weather. Unfortunately, this is where things got somewhat unrealistic. Birds that are extremely tame come to investigate the newcomers and are subsequently killed. I think wild birds would always be suspicious of newcomers. Wild boars are made to seem easy to catch, herd, and kill. On the contrary, wild boars can be extremely dangerous animals. Elizabeth finds a plethora of plants that make excellent spices and not one she discovers is poisonous. While I don't know what spices and herbs come from where, I find it highly unlikely that the same plants that grew in England would grow in Bermuda, but somehow the protagonist comes across the exact same plants, or very close analogs. There are no subsequent hurricanes the likes of which wrecked them in the first place. In short, things just go way way too well for these folks.

I enjoyed the historical notes by the author, and Elizabeth's recipes recorded every few chapters. I like being able to get a "behind the scenes" peek at what historical data inspired this novel. However, I found the connection between the historical William Strachey and William Shakespeare to be extremely shaky. However, Johnson admits this herself, emphasizing that the book is not history but fiction. It is an artist's interpretation of historical record, and doesn't claim to be anything else.

Suspension of disbelief aside, this book was quite enjoyable. Nothing groundbreaking, but a fun way to pass a few hours. I would definitely recommend giving this one a go if you like interesting spins on history or literature. I look forward to future novels written by Johnson.

Bottom Line
Overall Rating: 3.5 / 5
Buy or Try? Try
More? Standalone
Plot: 3 / 5
Setting: 4 / 5
Characters: 4 / 5
Pace: Middlin'
Descriptiveness: Prose
Fantasy factor: Not fantasy


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