Friday, April 11, 2008

Lilli Thal

by Lilli Thal
Recommended Age: 12+

John Brownjohn – who both translated and probably inspired a character in the Golden Hamster Saga – is responsible for bringing this German youth-novel into the English language. I must begin by praising him, because he must be a great writer in his own right, to take a wonderful book in German and turn it into an equally wonderful book in English. Yet I do not want to stint in my praise of Lilli Thal, an award-winning young adult author who deserves a loud round of applause for dreaming up this inventive and devastatingly powerful story.

The novel takes place some time in the Middle Ages. As far back as Prince Florin can remember, his father – King Philip of Moltovia – has been at war with the neighboring King Theodo of Vinland. Now, it seems, peace has been reached at last. Florin rides for 10 days to reach the court of Vinland for a banquet celebrating the new peace, and perhaps to be betrothed to the Princess Alix. His joy is shattered when banquet turns into betrayal. King Philip is thrown into a dungeon, and Florin is apprenticed to the razor-tongued court jester named Mimus.

The next 180 days are a wrenching testimony of suffering and endurance, despair and hope, tragedy and mockery, dangerous scheming and rigorous training in the arts of fooldom. Old Mimus teaches “Little Mimus” all the tricks of his trade, while the prince is tortured, starved, humiliated, betrayed by longtime allies, and worried sick about his father and their surviving men. But Florin also makes new friends, finds scraps of comfort and joy to cherish, and occasionally receives messages telling him not to lose hope — even as the final hours of his captivity approach in a rush of breathtaking suspense.

Prince Florin goes through a physical, emotional, and spiritual wringer in this story. You will too. But above all, you will be fascinated by the frequently contrary and always contradictory character of Mimus – his cruelty and tenderness, his shameless degradation as well as his surgically-sharp wit.

I wish I could quote to you my favorite line in the book, in which Mimus comes as close as ever to explaining himself... but it would ruin your enjoyment of that great moment. You’ll know it when you see it. Which is to say, you WILL read this book. Why? Because I declare it to be the “best book I have read so far this year” – a distinction I have only bestowed twice before in the history of The Book Trolley. If you want to know why, you know what to do!

This is a seriously good, great, awesome story from the imagination of an author who would be fascinating in any language, in the words of a translator so gifted that you can’t believe you’re reading a translation. It is set in a special place and time when clowns really could change the course of history, and it has jokes and riddles in it that will make you shudder, cringe, laugh, and cry, one after the other and sometimes all at once.

1 comment:

RobbieFish said...

It's been years since I reviewed the book, so I can now only guess what quote I had in mind -- but it may be the following bit from p. 352 of the 2005 Annick Press edition:

...Mimus paced angrily up and down. "If only you would understand!" He came to an abrupt halt. "Come, look at me. Look at me closely." He plucked at his costume. "What do you see? Well, tell me!"

"A jester's motley."

"Wrong," said Mimus. "These are dragon's scales, layer after layer of them grown for fifteen long years. They're impenetrable as a suit of armor."

But his face, which looked unusually pale and vulnerable, belied his words. A moment later the mask descended once more....