Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin

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Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: A powerful account of life in fifteenth century Spain, full of passion, violence and courage.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Doubleday Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0385617031

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Winner of the young Quills 2011 Award

Don't read this book if you are of a delicate disposition and prone to nightmares. Within the first few pages a woman is burned at the stake, a man is unjustly accused and hanged, his young son only just escapes the same fate and a woman dies in childbirth. But this is no horror story, and none of the violence is gratuitous: this is quite simply the world of fifteenth century Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are fighting the Moors in Granada, Christopher Columbus is seeking royal funding for a voyage to prove the world is round, and the Inquisition is spreading terror and anguish throughout the land. And against this background of momentous events, we have the thrilling and beautiful account of the lives of two young people, bound together by hatred and love.

Zarita and Saulo are enemies. She starts off as a silly, spoiled and naive girl who makes such a fuss when a beggar asks her for money that it is assumed he assaulted her, and her father, the local magistrate, orders the man to be hanged immediately. Zarita does not escape retribution for her foolishness: society deems her to be sullied by the apparent assault, and this ruins her chances of a good marriage. When she subsequently refuses to be married off to an elderly gentleman, her father is obliged to send her away, to her aunt's convent.

Saulo is the son of the beggar hanged by Zarita's father. He is condemned to be a slave on a cargo ship, leaving his dying mother alone in the world, and he has many adventures before he returns to Andalucia. But he never forgets that he has sworn vengeance for his parents' deaths, and when circumstances give him both his freedom and a fortune, he goes back to Las Conchas to kill the magistrate and his family.

The story is told by both protagonists, in alternating sections. This device means we are able to experience, with the immediacy of an eye-witness, what the two young people see and feel over the months following the death of Saulo's father. Neither of them has an easy time, in their different ways, and it would be hard to say which one of them suffers more. No details are spared us: this is not a fairy-tale with a facile happy ending, and life at the time was cheap. Saulo wants revenge: to him, the murder of his enemies is quite justified, and he sets about the task of killing Zarita and her family with cold efficiency. But he is at the same time a warm and caring young man, who more than once risked his life to save his companions on the cargo ship, and the two first-person accounts allow the reader to better understand that morality was seen differently in the past. But the author never seeks cheap thrills, even when recounting the most horrible and bloodthirsty tortures of the Inquisition: her tale is simply and clearly told.

At a time when the news frequently reminds us just how far people will go in the name of democracy and freedom, this book will make many readers think more carefully about what they believe. People may have hated and feared the Inquisition, and its barbaric practices may revolt us, but people in Catholic Spain in the fifteenth century were convinced what was done was for the good of all society, including the victims. Belief in the afterlife was common, and the severity of the punishment was intended to persuade heretics to repent at the moment of death and thus save their immortal souls. And, needless to say, witnessing this encouraged everyone else to remain on the path of virtue, and of obedience to the Church.

Many things are not what they first seem in this book. People act for selfish or twisted motives, or out of simple fear, and many townsfolk are denounced to the Inquisition, and horribly punished, with very little proof of wrong-doing. But the characters in this inspiring book are also capable of great sacrifices for love and for family, and what begins as a sordid, sad little event takes on enormous grandeur and significance. In such an atmosphere, and after such a story, a conventional 'happy-ever-after' ending is nigh on impossible, but readers will close the book with a sense of peace and reassurance that despite the worst things humanity can do, nobility and love will always endure.

Many thanks to Random House for sending us this splendid book.

Further reading suggestion: Excellent historical fiction for teenagers abounds – readers might like to stray into other centuries by reading The Lady in the Tower by Marie-Louise Jensen, Gatty's Tale by Kevin Crossley-Holland, or Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper, all of which are warmly recommended.

Booklists.jpg Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin is in the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2010.
Booklists.jpg Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin is in the Carnegie Medal 2011.
Buy Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin at Amazon.com.

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Jill said:

"At a time when the news frequently reminds us just how far people will go in the name of democracy and freedom, this book will make many readers think more carefully about what they believe."

Well said, Linda!