| ||The Bulletin|
of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Cumulative Achievement Award: The Pagan Quartet
Though published in Australia between 1992 and 2000, Catherine Jinks' Pagan books were only imported to the U.S. 2003-2005. There have, of course, been many successful imports (a certain young wizard comes to mind) of children's and young adult novels, but the import of an eleven-year-old novel and its three sequels is a fairly rare phenomenon. It doesn't hurt that the books are set in late twelfth century European and Middle Eastern society and are therefore immune to issues of dated popular culture references. It also helps that Jinks has developed a character, Pagan Kidrouk, whose acerbic wit and flashy sense of adventure (mixed with bravado) make for a veritably timeless hero.In the first of the books, Pagan's Crusade, Pagan Kidrouk is introduced as a misguided kid from the wrong side of Bethlehem; compelled by the money to serve as squire to Lord Roland Roucy de Bram, a skeptical Pagan questions the mission of the Crusades but grow! s genuinely attached to his virtuous knightly master, worrying constantly about Lord Roland's unworldliness. As the books progress, Pagan's devotion to Lord Roland increases, so that after the Roucy de Bram family battles in Pagan's Exile leave Roland essentially homeless, both knight and squire enter a monastic order, Roland for God, Pagan for Roland. Throughout the series Pagan embraces social tolerance while retaining his cynicism, harnesses his intelligence to meaningful ends, and scrambles to stay alive amid the turmoil of medieval warfare, only to finally himself become the teacher to young monk Isidore, the narrator of the final volume.
In each novel, Jinks cleverly brings readers close to her protagonist with a sparkling first-person narration that repeatedly reveals the real thoughts behind the polite, measured responses; the result is an insider's viewpoint offering some amusing discrepancies. As Isidore offers up scripture to prove his intelligence to Pagan, his tone is measured and dignified, his visage is respectful, but his thoughts take a different path: "It will not be easy, serving this little Archdeacon. Not only is he a profane, bossy, discourteous man--he's a former Infidel, too! How can I bow my neck to his yoke?" This bracing, reader-appealing irreverence ensures these are no dusty historical travelogues, while the genuine emotion just beneath the surface makes these compelling and, at times, poignant chronicles.Writing even one good book is a challenge, writing a sequence of four titles that sustains its excellence, remains original, and provides individual titles of merit as wel! l as an overarching saga is almost impossible. Jinks manages this feat with seeming ease, offering a narrative that is effectively paced within each book and from book to book, avoiding the common pitfall of simply rewriting the first book for each successive outing. Instead, she takes her characters to places, both literal and metaphorical, that will surprise readers.
The changing of the narrator from Pagan to Isidore in the last volume is a particularly daring move, but it's also an insightful one: as an adult, Pagan might be a less interesting narrator to young readers, and the different viewpoint allows an external view of the grown Pagan that complements our insider's view of his youthful experiences. Isidore resembles Pagan sufficiently to inspire patience and sympathy in the older man; both received harsh but productive educations at the hands of priests and monks, though neither appreciated the sacrifices made by those educators or the rarity of the opportunity, and both know loneliness and hold little hope for the world. It is because of this hopelessness that they are both prime subjects for a transformative figure to come into their lives and show them a new perspective. For Pagan, it was Lord Roland; for Isidore, it is Pagan. Readers may miss the youthful Pagan's dash, but they'll appreciate the exceptionally well-! written finale that not only ties up all loose ends (even to the last days of Pagan's life described in an Epilogue), but also brings the story back to the beginning, with Isidore embarking, as Pagan did, on a life that's suddenly bringing him more challenge and opportunity than he expected.
Like much successful historical fiction, the Pagan series offers a combination of winning elements: a dramatic character with whom readers can identify, a successful balance between introspection and fiery battle and action scenes, and sufficient verifiable history to balance the fiction and intrigue the reader. In interviews, Catherine Jinks has commented on the fact that, although her research interests led her to the Crusades, she did not imagine that she would be compelled to write four books about the life of a sarcastically witty squire from the time period. Readers are lucky that she did.
April Spisak, Reviewer