"A subtle, sensitive tale about struggling colonists that is a vivid contribution to its literary genre."– Kirkus Reviews
This sequel to Stainer’s Joachim’s Magic has Joachim Gans back in Elizabethan England, where he is accused of heresy while his apprentice, Reis Courtney, works his way toward manhood.
The story opens at sea, where Joachim, Reis, Hans Altschmer, Thomas Hariot, and others from the failed Virginia enterprise are returning home. Reis, swept overboard, is rescued from drowning by Hans. Ashore, Reis is left with his Uncle Allyn and family at their hardscrabble farm in Surrey while Thomas and Joachim are summoned by the queen, who wants the master metallurgist to find a more efficient way of refining saltpeter for gunpowder due to the looming war with Spain. Rescued from Surrey, young Reis joins his two mentors in an audience with the queen, an exciting and intimidating experience. He also meets Robert Marchette, who will be an important and generous influence in his life. He accompanies Joachim to Bristol to help in the saltpeter venture under a royal grant. But Jews are not welcome in England, and soon Joachim is charged as a heretic (he has never tried to hide or deny his faith). This very delicate case goes to the queen’s Privy Council and is finally dismissed. But by then Joachim has had enough abuse from these English, and he returns to his native Prague. Sir Walter Raleigh tries to tempt Reis to join his planned expedition to “El Dorado” in South America. It is indeed tempting, but Reis declines and is hired by Marchette where, his foreshadowed talent emerging, he becomes the horse trainer on Marchette’s country estate.
Characters and character carry this inspiring YA read. Some are historical. Joachim and Thomas have major roles, while Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh, and others are relatively minor but important to flesh things out. Others—Marchette, Hans, Hugh Salter (who finally stops whining and finds his vocation)—are fictional but no less real and admirable, each in his way. Change is a strong motif. Hans has become a changed man from the previous novel, now a stalwart friend of Joachim’s and a cheerful and indefatigable giant who teaches Reis and Hugh the value of work and the manly art of self-defense. It’s easy to lose patience with the jejune Hugh, but the adults keep the faith in him and are rewarded. Patience is indeed a virtue here. Joachim, Thomas, Hans, and others know instinctively that they have an important job—to make a man, a good man, out of Reis—and each does his job admirably, mostly by being an excellent male role model. And Stainer does a wonderful job of evoking the contrasts in a great city as an awestruck boy first encounters it: “The sounds of London Town assailed his ears, the hawkers, the street vendors, the bustle of many people moving about their business. The smells combined fresh baked bread and a sour smell of offal, sewage and something else quite indefinable.”
An excellent, comprehensive read for any serious student of the Elizabethan Age and anyone concerned with intolerance.
An ambitious novel about the New World examines a complex historical figure, a master metallurgist.
Stainer (The Lyon’s Crown, 2004, etc.) embraces Tidewater Virginia/North Carolina 400 years ago as her special bailiwick. Here we have an expedition that Sir Walter Raleigh bankrolled in 1585, seeking to unearth copper in Virginia. Thus we find Joachim Gans (aka Dougham Gaunse), the foremost metallurgist of the age, among the Colonial party, along with his 12-year-old apprentice, Reis Courtney. The search for copper ultimately fails, but Reis, a tough kid and in awe of his master, still discovers plenty of adventure. Joachim becomes a kind, willing teacher to Reis. Others in the party, especially the Germans, express no love for Joachim because he is Jewish. The old canards surface: Jews killed Christ; they drink the blood of children; etc. Little Jeremie, another apprentice, believes these stories. Reis doesn’t, but he remains curious about this private man who prays in Hebrew, refuses to eat meat (because it’s not kosher), and wears a silver Magen David. The diverse characters include Erhart Greutter, a bigot who continuously taunts Joachim; the renowned mathematician Thomas Hariot, who tries valiantly to keep the peace; and the Native American chief Pemisapan, who turns against the colonists. At one point, the chief’s forces capture a group of colonists, including Joachim and his apprentice—can the metallurgist save himself and Reis? A fierce battle ultimately ensues, but the real story concerns the gruff affection between Joachim and Reis and the apprentice’s maturation in a world that encourages age-old hatreds. This smoothly written, well-paced novel deftly handles the historical and fictional characters and perennial themes. The empathetic book’s first sentence is “Me master beat me yesterday.” That is said by 9-year-old Jeremie (who later contracts ague). This wonderful dramatic opening, a real heart-tugger, shows in a bleak five words what times were like in the New World, especially for youngsters sold into apprenticeship by their desperate parents. (Reis, in effect an orphan, volunteers for the position.) But Joachim and Reis’ evolving father-son relationship becomes the most touching aspect of the lucid, evocative narrative. When Reis thinks he has made a mistake or overstepped his bounds, he feels deeply ashamed, a mark of adolescent love.
A subtle, sensitive tale
about struggling colonists that is a vivid contribution to its literary genre.