Book Review: The Apprentice’s Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain
Toronto, ON: Annick, 2008
310 pp., hardcover, $19.95
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up
One time we played
a great game of tag,
just like boys half our age.
Ramon and I ran and we ran
through our quarter.
Down blind alleys and skinny lanes.
Across every bridge that we saw.
We wound up in places we’d only heard of—
and some that we hadn’t.
Cordoba’s streets wind and turn
like knots in the hair of Medusa.
It was fun.
(I half let him, knowing his pride.
Nothing is too small
to irk it.)
“That, my friend,
Was an excellent game,”
Is such a word real
when one man is free
and the other is not?
Set in Medieval Spain at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Melanie Little’s novel in free verse, The Apprentice’s Masterpiece, makes for a powerful reading experience. Much of the content of the book is deeply troubling, and so this book is not for young or immature readers. Little tells her tale with concise, evocative words that lend a certain beauty to the story—yet it is not a tale of beauty. Rather, the mistrust, corruption and brutality of the Inquisition are laid bare.
Over 300 pages in length, The Apprentice’s Masterpiece is divided into three parts. Those three parts are told in the first person by the book’s two main characters. Ramon, who begins the book as a 15-year-old, tells the first part and the final part of the book. Amir, who is, for a time, a slave in the home of Ramon’s parents, tells the middle part. The book begins in 1485 and runs through until 1492, the year in which Christopher Columbus sets out on his voyage of discovery with the backing of the Spanish queen, Isabella. Rather than focusing on Columbus, however, Little confines her poetic narrative to events in Spain.
With the approval of Isabella and her husband, King Fernando, the Spanish Inquisition focuses, in part, on Jews and Muslims who supposedly have insincerely converted to Christianity. Using torture and the notorious autos da fe—public sentencing and burning of people at the stake—the Inquisition’s supposed intent was to bring people to repentance and to bring Spain together, united under one religious body. As a storytelling tool, this setting proves ideal for the simmering tension between Ramon and Amir. Ramon’s family are conversos—Jews converted to Christianity. Amir is a Moor, or Muslim, who begins to work alongside Ramon as an apprentice scribe, working under the direction of Ramon’s father. Amir’s face carries the brand of a slave, and so Ramon’s jealous and proud nature is stirred when he sees the fondness with which his parents regard Amir.
The economic, yet evocative, nature of Little’s writing helps the reader to gain some understanding of such things as the horror of people being burnt at the stake, the hopeless depression of life as a slave on a galley ship, and the brutality of a medieval siege upon a city. Although this is not subject matter to be enjoyed, mature readers will enjoy Little’s masterful use of language. Despite being set five hundred years distant, the depth of the character construction makes it possible to relate to Ramon and Amir and to empathize with what it is that each of them is thinking. Our modern day world continues to be shaped by religious persecution and conflict, and so readers will likely recognize some of the 21st century in this book set in the 15th century. This is a troublesome, yet extremely well written and intriguing book.
Gregory Bryan teaches children’s literature in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.