The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth

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The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A quest for two Roma children, as their family must be rescued courtesy of their courage, will-power, animal magnetism and a scattered collection of charms. The historical setting certainly adds to the reasons for recommending this young teen fantasy read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 978-1407110486

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The Finch family are having misgivings about going to market day, due to some quickly interpreted predictions. Still, many of the youngsters go, do their entertaining skits and whatnot, and raise a tidy sum, before lo and behold all the clan are thrown in jail.

Luckily two of the youths escape, and are deemed the sole saviours – if they can travel the north and south Downs, and find five amulets belonging to a special charm bracelet, then they might just have it within themselves to rescue the others and reunite the family.

It's only more odd, then, that no-one seems to have thought to reunite all five charms before, but these are most unusual times – the Lord Protector, Cromwell, has been ruling for just a year now, and all the things the Finch family have been getting up to – fiddling, dancing, singing etc, all to raise funds for a dowry – are banned by the puritanical times. The Finches are also heavily handicapped by being Roma, and therefore heavily under scrutiny for being treasonous villains, or just plain criminals.

The first chapter of the book is by far the worst, introducing us to far too many people, before the story makes it clear that the hero will be Luka, the heroine Emilia (or Milly), and they and their bizarre menagerie (consisting of tame monkey, huge dog, lovely horse, and dancing bear) will be forced to serve the author in her quest story by reuniting the charms, and the gypsy kin, in order to help their folks.

I could use modern terminology like side-quests (as in computer games), or set-pieces (as in action films) to define some of what happens, but that is to ignore the charm of the piece, and would also disguise just how old-fashioned the story-telling is. There is a lot of people having just what other people need or want in exchange – perhaps too much, by the end – that reminded me of much older fairy tales and so on.

The charm mostly comes from this being a very well considered breach of fantasy fiction, turning as it does into convincing historical fiction. The gypsy side of things is very well done – although the youngest reader should be served with a tiny glossary – and very novel. Also, apart from a few bits where research and factoids about Roma and Cromwell-era life are thrust down our throats a little too heavily, the milieu of the setting really serves the author in providing an intriguing and acceptable alternative to the usual fantasy world. Here the dancing bear is an inherent part of the plot (without any awful anthropomorphism), Emilia can be thrust into the hard-hitting scene of horse racing, and the almost Witchfinder General-style villain can be always on their tail, all with a distinct realism that makes the book most readable.

The writing style goes a long way to that purpose, too; if providing few in the way of cliff-hangers, it still is most compelling. The only flaw I could find with it is a disregard to filling in all the gaps. Several times the concentration was on some part of the children-and-menagerie set, only for, say, the dog, to finally get a mention ten pages on, as if he had been forgotten. Witness a climactic capture, in which a secondary character is only mentioned as having been caught after the event, and never mentioned in the pursuit. I can imagine that the book might have been over-detailed and repetitive if every character and animal was mentioned at every plot event, but this – and the non-appearance of one charm-donor at the end – left a too-strong sense of holes being left in things.

That quibble aside, the read is a most distinctive one, with the old-fashioned approach to the quest story, the generous use of the Roma traditions and character types (the tinkers, the fortune-tellers, those who lose their roads and settle down), and the inventive weaving into Cromwellian events (which a slightly over-long footnote further elucidates on) all adding up to a successful fantasy-tinged historical fiction.

Scholastic have a good book here, that the Bookbag (ever grateful for having been sent a copy to read) recommends strongly to the ten and over. The publishers suggest the 8+ age range, and while there is nothing bar a few thumps delivered to the animals to upset the younger reader, it is a hefty read, and perhaps not the sort of thing to absorb the under-tens.

Who knows, on a better day (and if the copy received had not been a proof and actually included the cover-mounted collectable charm promised all purchasers!), four and a half stars could have been given. There is little to stop this book from being a popular, well-received launch.

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