The Dark Lady by Akala

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The Dark Lady by Akala

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A story of magic, class and race set in Elizabethan London - Akala has given readers a powerful story, full of rich historical detail and language, but with a punch of relevance today. Fabulous stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 369 Date: April 2020
Publisher: Hodder
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1444943696  

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For a street kid from the Devil's Gap, London's most notorious slum, life is short and tough. For Henry, a boy thief with brown skin, inherited from a mother who abandoned him, life is tougher still. The Dark Lady enters his dreams at night. She seems to represent a past, and possibly a future...

Henry and his friends, brother and sister Matthew and Mary, have various ways of getting by. Sometimes they pick pockets. Sometimes they rob the houses of the rich. It's crime or starve - but crime is dangerous and they risk the terrible punishments of Elizabethan England if they are caught. Impossible choices. But there are pleasures too, and for Henry, the chief pleasure is the Globe Theatre and the plays of William Shakespeare. Henry loves language and often makes up sonnets about what he sees around him and how he feels. 

Henry also has a secret gift, known only to his stepmother and friends. He can read any language - all he has to do is close his eyes and the translation comes to him in a blaze of golden lettering. This isn't, as you can imagine, a common skill in a street urchin and, when a failed robbery brings Henry to the notice of a nobleman and his friend, Doctor John Dee, there's another impossible choice to make. To take the wealth, comfort and riches a rich patron can bestow, or to betray a best friend?

I think I first discovered Akala when he made an appearance on Newsnight Review with his newly founded The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company back in 2009. You can see a video of it in the infobox to the right. Fab, isn't it? Not only does he bring vitality and irresistible energy to the classics but he also draws inescapable parallels to the living, contemporary music and poetry scene and thus returns creativity, and the history of it, back where it belongs: with ordinary people. I'm so glad he's written The Dark Lady. It's a supernatural adventure story - a genre always popular with young readers - but it's also an affection but critical connection to a past that we all share today. Issues of class and race, of insiders and outsiders, are nothing new. And they still need dissecting.

It's beautifully researched, rich with historical detail and real events. And I loved the inclusion of contemporary argot, skilfully handled so that it piques the interest and adds flavour but retains accessibility and readability. I felt for Henry, who wants to be a decent, righteous man, but who struggles to contain his anger at the way the deck has been stacked against him. And who wouldn't?  But mostly, I enjoyed the sense of Elizabethan London as it rises, redolent, from the pages, and the story, which has plenty of twists and turns and enough magic to draw in every reader.

I can't wait to meet Henry again, hopefully this time in Venice.

Akala has a short list of further reading suggestions at the end of The Dark Lady. Among them is The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer. For those wanting their next read to be contemporary, Renee Watson explores the relationship between race and class in Piecing Me Together.

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