The Premise: This is the story of young dwarf Jepp, who grew up in Astraveld, a crossroads between the Spanish Netherlands and the Protestant North. Loved by his mother, who runs a bustling inn, Jepp is treated like a prince and is fiercely protected. It is a good life, but when he is fifteen years old, a man comes by the inn, offering to bring Jepp to the court of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia and her husband, Archduke Albert of Austria. Eager to see the world beyond the narrow one he knows, Jepp agrees. He has always held a dream of one day meeting his father and he believes that the man offering to take him away is part of his fate. This begins Jepp’s journey away from childhood and all its innocence and into the big world, where perhaps he can
My Thoughts: Before reading Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, I didn’t really know what this book was about or what category of young adult it belonged to. I actually thought Jepp was YA fantasy at first because it begins at a inn at a crossroads (familiar Fantasy territory). I soon figured out that I was reading historical fiction when Jepp says he lives in the Spanish Netherlands and mentions the Infanta Isabella, its sovereign from 1598 to 1621. There’s an author’s note at the end of the book that explains the real life people and events that inspired Jepp, (which is fascinating and worth reading), and basically Jepp did exist, but little is known about his life. Marsh took the question of who Jepp was and extrapolated that into this story. Jepp is divided into three “Books”, and each “Book” seems to correspond to a change in scenery and a new direction in Jepp’s life.
Book I begins while Jepp still lives in his mother’s domain, but not for long. A man named Don Diego comes to the inn and invites him to he court of the Infanta Isabella, and that’s where Jepp stays for this part of the story. Jepp is still rather innocent and unsure of himself so he is mostly an observer, doing what he is bid by the others around him. We get Jepp’s impressions of the specially designed rooms for the court dwarfs, the gardens where they arranged themselves in a tableau for the Infanta’s pleasure, and the performances where he has to play the fool for a few laughs. As for the people at court, Jepp focus is narrow: Don Diego; the other dwarfs, Sebastian, Lia, and Maria; the court jester Pim, who arranges the entertainment; and Hendrika, the mistress who oversees them. These people are the ones he interacts with most, and everyone else is hazy and not so well-defined.
Despite Jepp’s faithful descriptions, there’s the sense that there’s a certain naivety in what Jepp observes. He sees things that trouble him, but does not fully comprehend them until later. He dislikes his treatment at the palace, but doesn’t immediately see the same misery in others. His youth is part of the story, but I found some of this innocent observation and floating along very passive. Basically, Jepp wasn’t really doing anything, and this didn’t make him easy for me to connect to. The only goal he seemed to have was to one day find out the identity of his father, but there seems no way of doing so away from his mother, and so I felt like there wasn’t much of a direction to the story. Sometimes there are other things that saves a story for me in this situation, like a romance I could sink my teeth into, but even here, Jepp disappoints. He thinks he’s in love, but he barely knows the girl. When things do finally pick up, it is instigated by a situation someone else is in, and Jepp is pulled into it by his sweet nature and wanting to help. Of course this changes his life, and propels his fate along in a way he doesn’t expect.
There’s some drama as the story segues into Book II, but the story stalls for a second time as Jepp repeats what he’s done before: letting things happen to him, and observing rather than doing. The eccentricities of his surroundings is where the entertainment lies, not in Jepp’s own actions. Of course Jepp, Who Defied the Stars gets better – Jepp does start to take his fate into his own hands, if you will, and it’s nice that when I think back now, I see how Book I is reflected in Book II, but with an older and wiser Jepp, one who begins to take part in his own life – but reading was a slow process (I’m sorry to report that I kept putting the book down and sighing for at least the first half). The last third of the book (Book III) ended up being the best third for me, but it takes some patience to get there. The change in Jepp from passive to active removes a lot of the issues I had with reading, and with his relationships with other characters.
Jepp, Who Defied the Stars essentially becomes a story about fate versus free will, but this isn’t a clear message for me until the author’s notes at the end. I liked Marsh’s own personal relationship with this theme that she described in the addendum, but I’m not sure if the idea that Jepp was fighting against some fate was really something I picked up on while reading this story. I think the history itself was a little bit more interesting. Despite being set in the past, this story does a good job of keeping the focus on Jepp’s personal experiences rather than on History. However, Jepp’s voice has a formality to it that is a deliberate reflection of the time (Marsh notes she was careful to choose words in use before 1600 when writing Jepp), and the language contributed to feeling like I couldn’t comfortably sink into the story.
Overall: I have a sort of “middle ground” reaction to Jepp. I wasn’t wowed while I was reading it, and Jepp’s passivity and the formality of his narration made me feel impatient with the story. On the other hand, I can see that these were deliberate choices in the writing because of the theme of “fate versus free will” and because of the time period that Jepp is set. I think my visceral response usually determines how I feel about a story and for much of this book, I felt like I was plodding along, but when I think about it analytically, it comes off much better. So: this may be more for the “thinkers” than it is for the “feelers”.
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Very Good)
The Book Harbinger – positive (“it wasn’t only the engaging history but also the character of Jepp himself which drew me in from the start.”)
Word for Teens – DNF
Book Nut – “Overall, it’s a bit uneven” but also, “found it to be a wonderful bit of historical fiction”
(Also may I say, this book was BEAUTIFULLY designed? I loved how the inner pages were NAVY with pretty endpages and chapter headings, and the cover had shiny bits on a matte background, silver font, and those stars. Gorgeous.)