Friday, September 13, 2013

Review - "The Unfortunate Son"

In sixteenth century France, the abandoned son of a count, who was born with only one ear, makes a new life for himself with an elderly fisherman, his sister and their beautiful young ward, until one day he is set upon by ruthless Saracen pirates and sold into slavery in Northern Africa. Got your attention? Brilliant, because if left with the cover of The Unfortunate Son, I don’t know if I’d be able to sell this book. Not that it isn’t a fine work of art by Scott McKowen, it is. And it does accurately represent a scene from the book. It’s just a little…plain. And dreary. The sky is overcast, the water is choppy, and every single body on that boat looks sour and unfriendly, like they’re all suffering from food poisoning (which might not be far off the mark, mind you). I’m not sure why the publishers chose to highlight such a sour scene from the book as its cover (it’s also in shades of brown, which is a deathly cover for juvenile and young adult books. Brown=boring.) Luckily for author Constance Leeds the quality of the writing far outweighs the meh-ness of the cover.

The Unfortunate Son is actually the tale of two youths, Luc and Beatrice. Luc is disowned by his count father by virtue of his abnormality. Beatrice is the daughter of a disgraced knight who was murdered by the count before her eyes. Now she lives with her old nursemaid Mattie and her brother Pons in a small fishing village. Luc soon enters their lives and comes to live with the happy family and helps with the fishing. Luc and Beatrice form a quick but quiet bond. One day when out fishing with Pons, Luc is kidnapped by marauding pirates and sold into slavery to a wise scholar and physician. Salah proves to be a kind master, teaching Luc to read, to speak Arabic and many other subjects while training Luc to be his assistant. Back home, Beatrice refuses to believe her friend has died, and prays daily for his return. In the meantime, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of Luc’s heritage, eventually tracing his roots to the old count, now deceased. As Salah’s health declines, Luc faces a choice: stay behind in his new home that he has grown to love, or make his way back to France and to Beatrice.
The Unfortunate Son begins with a bang, with the birth of Luc, doomed by his malformation to be discarded by his father, and it never really lets up. We’re quickly introduced to Beatrice, Mattie and Pons and given their backstory. Leeds writes aggressively, with conviction. We’re always sure of where we are, of time and place. I was worried we might be taken over with Luc’s story once he is abducted, but Leeds carefully navigates us back and forth, and we are given just as much of Beatrice’s point of view as Luc’s. Multiple starred reviews had me looking forward to this one, despite the cover (sorry to harp, but it really is a dull cover), and I was not disappointed. It’s one of the best historical fiction books I’ve read in recent years.

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds
2012, Viking
Library copy

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