Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Prisoner's Apprentice

The Prisoner's Apprentice
by Stephen Elboz
Recommended Ages: 12+

Yanis is a boy who has lived all his life, so far, in a tsarist-era Russian orphanage where the children work as laundry drudges. Then a scientist named Dr. Gomarus shows up and chooses him as his assistant for a thousand-mile voyage to the village of Osva, to study the cranial measurements of convicts in a prison for revolutionary leaders. It's an opportunity that lights up the boy's gloomy life, enabling him not only to see more of the world and to meet strange and notorious people, but also to learn to read and develop photographs.

From their first moment on board the ski-ship that sails up a frozen river, Yanis is captivated by a beautiful young countess who has been exiled for displeasing the tsar. Once arrived in Osva, he similarly falls under the spell of a charming death-row prisoner named Nikolay Kolchak. Unwittingly, he becomes drawn into the middle of a secret correspondence between the two. Before he understands who should and shouldn't be trusted, he becomes entangled in a dangerous plot.

Unusual for young adult fiction in English, this story enters the perilous, conflict-torn world of the beginnings of the Russian revolution. It shows both sides in both a sympathetic and a critical light, from the paranoid repression of the tsarist regime to the cynical deceit and villainy of some revolutionary leaders. Characters of all classes show both attractive and repulsive features. The danger Yanis is in, and the developing beauty of his relationship with Dr. Gomarus, are both warmly felt. And the ending leaves the reader in the surprising position of having to finish the story for him- or herself.

This 2006-published novel is, with the exception of a chapter book titled Clever Monkeys, the latest book by the author of the four magical Kit Stixby adventures, the two Temmi books, two Kid Wonder books, The House of Rats, Games Board Map, The Bottle Boy, The Byzantium Bazaar, Ghostlands, The Tower at Moonville, and A Store of Secrets. It might be hard to find; Amazon doesn't seem to be aware it exists. But I found several Elboz titles through online used-book dealers, and after reading this book I moved the lot of them to the top of my to-read pile.

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