Quests for immortality and true love intertwine in the debut novel from poet Gillet (The Responsibility of Madness, 2011, etc.).
In 1211, when fever claims both his parents, orphaned teenager Aaron Sloopshire winds up at a secluded castle occupied by Layla, an alchemist, bomb maker, and master of disguise. After she hears the young lad’s story, she agrees to take him on as an apprentice. Over the next year, Aaron learns to read, write, and harness the power of alchemy until the king’s men arrive to reclaim Layla’s castle for the crown. She and Aaron flee to France, where they cross paths with 12-year-old Stephen, leader of the Children’s Crusade against the Arabs, and his stunning 15-year-old sister, Eunisia. A smitten Aaron decides to stay with the crusade, while Layla continues her pursuit of the Lost Stone of Eden, a relic that allegedly grants its possessor immortality. As a parting gift, she gives Aaron the tiny eggplant that she wears around her neck, which, thanks to a mysterious, 600-year-old charm, can communicate (often snarkily) with whomever wears it. Upon arriving in Algeria, most of the crusaders get sold into slavery; Aaron escapes and vows to find and rescue Eunisia, which finds him wandering the desert, rescuing a pair of fellow crusaders, and ultimately falling into the clutches of Hassan i Sabbah, who also seeks the Lost Stone of Eden and is determined to keep Layla off the stone’s trail. Gillet rounds out this book’s sprawling cast with one-armed knights, desert-dwelling monks, and murderous magicians; at times, the number of players gets so large that the novel nearly collapses. What keeps it afloat, however, is the author’s clear empathy for his leads and particularly the tiny eggplant, which evolves from a wisecracking goof to a character full of hopes, fears, and touching compassion for Aaron. Such three-dimensional players help anchor a story (and myriad subplots) that the author keeps moving at a fast, assured clip.
An occasionally overstuffed but surprisingly touching medieval yarn.