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Customer Review

on 26 July 2013
In the world of Young Adult books there's nothing like a book with lots of death to attract favourable attention from reviewers, and you can't get much more death into one book than by choosing the Black Death as your subject. Whether young readers relish it as much as reviewers remains an open question.

The author's research is tolerably wide-ranging but superficial, and she doesn't wear it lightly. There's even a glossary to assist the ignorant in deciphering the medieval terms that are ponderously introduced into the text.

Nicholls has evidently read a few accounts of the effects of plague, but not too attentively. Whoever heard of 'pneumatic plague', for starters?

The most disappointing thing about the book is the characters. Surely it ought not to be too difficult to bring a sense of heart-rending tragedy into a book about the Black Death, which destroyed entire communities. But Nicholls' characters seem to be brought in merely in order to be killed off, which doesn't affect the reader (or, at least, this reader) at all because they were never alive in the first place. There's more real grief in the death of a dog in Rosemary Sutcliff's <Dawn Wind> than in Nicholls' entire body count. What's more, the protagonist, Isabel, is a self-pitying, self-centred prig whose survival has to be greeted with, at most, modified rapture.

Also irritating is the fashionable use of the present tense. Occasionally it makes the narrative more vivid, but more often it just sounds prissy, and occasionally it produces grammatical barbarisms such as 'I never see Geoffrey again'. Well well, I never either.

The definitive novel about this tremendous tragedy remains to be written.
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