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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Inquisitor’s Tale

9780525426165_p0_v2_s192x300I like this book very much, and I can easily see the committee discussing it very seriously.  It’s strong in virtually every single element that pertains to it–plot, character, setting, style, theme, and accuracy–and yet I’m feeling slightly underwhelmed on a personal level when it comes to plot and theme.  The characters in this book are good, but they represent types to me more than flesh and blood people.  Since I’m not a character-driven reader, this doesn’t bother me at all, so long as the plot is amazing.  The plot is good, but it’s episodic, and structurally there’s really nothing interesting about it aside from the fact that it takes umpteen people to convey it to the reader.  So while the storytelling is solid, and the sentence level writing is good, I’m still looking for something that screams “most distinguished” to me.  I love the idea of the theme, but still don’t find it particularly interesting, especially when you stack it alongside THE PASSION OF DOLSSA which was published this year for an older audience, but is very similar in a number of respects.  Then, too, how does it compare to the amazing field of historical fiction published this year for younger readers–ASHES, MAKOONS, FULL OF BEANS, THE HAUNTING OF FALCON HOUSE, and WOLF HOLLOW?  I’m probably sounding more negative about this one than I really am.  I can buy an argument that this is one of the top ten books of the year, but I’m not sure how it makes the top five.  As I mentioned, I definitely think that I have probably placed unfair expectations on this book, and I think that listening carefully to arguments in favor of the book, and then rereading it will definitely enhance my opinion of it.  But like I said, I’m not sure if it breaks my top five.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I’m with you on this one, Jonathan.

    I just finished it, and I felt decidedly underwhelmed. Maybe it was a case of Too Much Hype, but I was expecting something funnier (this is Gidwitz, after all), more incisive, and more… I don’t know… oomph?

    Don’t get me wrong. Like you, I enjoyed it. I thought the characters were interesting (though rather two-dimensional), the plot was interesting, and the Canterbury Tales-esque approach enjoyable, but there was something missing. Despite the occasional beautiful turn of phrase, the pace was sluggish. The theme was perfectly appropriate in the current rancorous political climate, but it wasn’t as fully fleshed out as it could’ve been. (You’re right, too, that DOLSSA was far more successful on this front.)

    It’s a great book, and it really addresses some important issues, but in a year of so many tall trees, it just doesn’t measure up for me.

    • I agree – top ten but not top five. This is just a year of outstanding titles and this one did leave me underwhelmed. Maybe it was the hype, but I was left with an unsatisfied feeling at the end, even after a rereading.

  2. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m surprised by these comments. It has so many starred reviews! Why do you think there’s such a disparity between those reviews and your take on the book?

  3. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m not sure there is a big discrepancy. I like it. I just don’t think it’s one of the five best books of the year.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    Jonathan, I also agree with you. For me personally, it was a top 10 but not top 5 book (and therefore still a realistic contender). I too can imagine it getting serious consideration from the committee. It’s a book I would support as a consensus pick. It is ambitious and quirky and I do think the high points of this book are as good as anything else this year. Yes, I agree it goes on a little too long. My own biggest complaint about the book is I feel Gidwitz is not always up to the task of “lyrical” writing when called for. When he tries to describe the view of Mont-St-Michel, he starts, “What lies before us is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my life.” He then launches into an extended description that didn’t convince me of that. Two sentences in, a phrase like “the water seems no more than an inch deep in most places” doesn’t seem quite right when trying to wax rapturous. Another instance where the pure writing goods weren’t quite there was Chretien’s song, which really didn’t work at all for me. I thought Kelly Barnhill in THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON did a better job furnishing poetry when needed. (To say nothing of Laura Amy Schlitz in Good Masters.) Interestingly, perhaps the most powerful scene in the book was achieved precisely when Gidwitz brought in another’s words rather than his own: when Jacob is in danger of being killed and tries to pray the Shema Yisrael, a moment reminiscent of A Survivor from Warsaw. (On a side note: I have a somewhat related feeling about WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER–I thought the story retellings were much more effective than the author’s own inventions). Personally I didn’t have any issue with characterization. Actually I appreciated that these “medieval” portrayals were somewhat two-dimensional). And I actually felt theme was a real strength here, though I have not read Dolssa. I do question whether this should be judged first as a work of historical fiction. It doesn’t seem to me like any of the other books you cited. As I mentioned earlier, I actually think the first point of comparison (which I judge in Gidwitz’s favor) is SAMURAI RISING. Susie, it may look like I too am piling on. But I too really did like this book – perhaps we are hardest on those books that are almost there.

    • That makes sense, Leonard, that we are hardest on the books that are almost there. At this time of year, after we’ve already purchased so many titles for my Newbery Club, and our funds are limited to add more, I really deliberate over our final additions. I think I didn’t pay enough attention to the positive comments Jonathan mentioned first because I was hoping this could be an easy elimination from my list. Now I’m not so sure!

      • Leonard Kim says:

        I personally would choose it for a Newbery Club including 5th-graders. Of course, it’s easy to tell other people to spend their money :) I suspect, but am not sure, that children may like this even more than the adults. Be curious to hear whether that’s true or not. It is Gidwitz after all, and I also don’t know whether there’s going to be readership overlap (outside adult enthusiasts) for this and PASSION OF DOLSSA.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t really think of the book as a historical fiction either. To me, it’s more of a genre book. The title, the cover, Gidwitz’s reputation–all of these things suggest it is a genre book. But then I expect a genre plot.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Maybe it was the hype, but I expected a sort of modern morality play going in, and that’s more or less what we get. I think that’s unusual enough now to make it a bit sui generis.

  6. Hmm… This is a bummer. I may read this one extra closely and become its champion. Go Gidwitz!

  7. I don’t think you’re paying attention! You can learn a heck of a lot about the medieval world by reading THE INQUISITOR’S TALE–in fact, even if you’re a reader who’s just after the flatulent dragon, you’ll come out with a much larger understanding of the past–and the present–after reading it. Just because the narrative voice is contemporary doesn’t mean the history part doesn’t read true–in fact, the fact that the text isn’t littered with “mayhems” and “perchance” is a boon. The book is beautifully researched as well as damned funny, remarkably original, and moving. The author takes children’s moral and philosophical questions seriously. There’s a powerful love of goodness in the story–and yet it’s a questioning book, not a didactic one. My money’s on Gidwitz.

  8. Okay, I just read this book this weekend (after the election), and it’s my new favorite for the Newbery. As you admitted, it excelled in all areas of the criteria. There were pages of research at the back, and I loved the way he used actual medieval legends and characters. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of Mont St. Michel, so I didn’t need description there to be convinced!
    The theme of tolerance was timely, if maybe slightly anachronistic. But you could believe that these children, once they got to know each other, would be accepting of each other. And the theme is woven throughout.
    I did love the characters. You got to know them during the course of the story. (Though I never did figure out what was up with the Nun.)
    For style, there was the lovely touch of mimicking The Canterbury Tales in structure. Plenty of humor in what’s fundamentally a serious book.
    So much research! He got the medieval setting spot-on.
    Mind you, I wasn’t a Gidwitz fan before this book. (I know, it’s not fair game for Newbery discussion, but A Tale Dark and Grimm didn’t make me care about the characters.)
    The plot weaves a lot of things together. It’s not quite fair to call it episodic, since the three children coming together motivates them to try to save the books.
    So yeah, this is my current favorite.

  9. I liked this book and was impressed with the historical research. I also listened to it on audio and enjoyed the author’s talented reading of it, along with all the other actors doing the various characters. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the “illuminations ” until afterward, but it was fun anyway.

    The idea of a quest to save Talmuds, not a princess or a gold treasure, was worthwhile reading, and an adventure. I am a librarian at a Jewish school, and the inclusion of ideas not generally known to children, like the words of Rabbi Hillel, or the Inquisition, or how scribes copy texts, or just the discussion of what Talmuds are, was gratifying to see in a children’s book.

    One quibble: weirdly, for someone who does so much historical research, I was jarred when on one page, Jacob dreams the Jews could fight back in “anger like the Maccabees washed over the Romans.” But the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, not Romans. (The Greeks tried to install Zeus in the Holy Temple, not Jupiter.)

  10. Kate McCue-Day says:

    I just finished this and loved it. It’s definitely in my top 5. It’s taken me longer than I thought to finish up all the books in my pile. I’ve promised my 5th graders I’d try to clean up my pile over vacation. Also just finished Wolf Hollow, which I also really liked. I think this is a very tough year to predict. I loved the historical aspect of Inquisitor’s Tale. I enjoyed googling things while reading. I also loved all the changes in attitude towards the children along the way. They are very cool characters.

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