Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner

One winter's night in 1789, three performers of a magic show from a local theatre in Paris are summoned to the chateau of the Marquis de Villeduval after another successful performance. Whilst preparing to make their way the youngest of the trio, an orphan boy called Yann, hears a strange voice warning him not to go. He tells his comrades, Topolain the magician and Tetu the dwarf, about the warning but they dismiss it as irrational fear. Little do they know what lies in store for them. At the chateau is the mysterious Count Kalliovski, who recognises Topolain and Tetu from his past. Eager to remove those that could show his hidden past the Count manages to kill one of the performers. The other two flee, with the help of the crippled and ill-treated Sido, daughter of the Marquis.

Thus begins a story set over a five years of the early stages of the French Revolution. Whilst Yann manages to make it to England and freedom, Sido is forced to find ways to survive the growing terror and Kalliovski's unwanted advances. Yann works to uncover the truth of his past and understand the meaning of the red necklace he stole from Kallioski as he flees. Will the pair survive?

This is an exciting and fascinating book that hooked me in right from the start. Gardner skillfully makes you interested in all the characters without giving too much away. We know very little about Yann for example, probably as much as he knows about himself, and learn more about him as he learns more about his heritage. The same too can be said for Sido. You care for the central characters and have a real desire to find out what will happen next.

What is also particularly skillful about this novel is that it shows how the French Revolution occurred, slowly, piece by piece. It is sometimes easy to forget that they didn't just drag Louis, the Royal Family and members of the aristocracy to the guillotine on a mere whim, nor did it happen overnight. The terror builds gradually and you begin to understand how many of the noble families got caught. Whilst it's easy with hindsight, we can imagine and understand better how the Revolution was seen through the eyes of those at the time. I don't pretend that this is the most historically accurate book ever. The book focuses more on the aristocracy's experiences and those of their servants than of the average inhabitant of Paris during this period.

The book is pretty chilling in places and it really reminds you how brutal human beings can be. There are some rather graphic sections and whilst this book is often found in the children/young adults section of the library I would not recommend it to pre-teens or even younger teens in some instances. There is once scene towards the end of the book that shows how one sentence can cause a crowd to turn into an angry, murderous mob. This book should be read to remind us of how quickly law and order can disintegrate and how atrocities can occur. It can be too easy to see what is happening in Africa, the Middle East and areas of Asia and forget that Europe was once like that, and could easily return to that.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to older teens and adults who have an interest in this period. I would also recommend it as a great book for getting older children to learn about human nature. The next book in the series, 'The Silver Blade', is due out at the end of April. I can't wait to read this or the other Sally Gardner book I have picked up 'I Coriander' which is set in 17th century England.

*4 stars*

Read for Historical Fiction Book Club. For more information about the club, click here

If you enjoyed this book why not try I Coriander, also by Sally Gardner

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