This is a strange book, and I say that in a distinctly positive manner. It is a book that is impossible to pigeon hole: is it historical fiction or a fantasy adaptation? Is it a romance or a coming of age tale? Is it a warning against rebellion or a clarion call to arms? Fawkes, by Nadine Brandes, is actually all of these things, and much more! It is a book that has found its way on to my extra credit reading list for the coming school year, and also a book that I would recommend to my adult friends.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I didn’t give it a full five stars for two (very small, and perhaps petty) reasons. First, the main character, Thomas Fawkes (the infamous Guy’s son) is thick-headed and annoying for about 85% of the story, until he finally gets a reality check in the form of death and carnage. Second, at times the story got a little weighed down with detail, particularly in the form of Thomas’ grousing about the unfairness of life. However, Nadine Brandes does an excellent job of illustrating what the sights and smells of historic London were probably like. She deftly weaves in the idea of nature-based magic, and a society revolving around that magic, into that backdrop, making the whole far-fetched tale seem entirely plausible. So, even with these two flaws in mind, I would still urge people who enjoy historical fiction and fantasy to read this book!
The thing that drew me into this book the most was the creative take on an old story. We all have learned about the bubonic plague in school, but in this telling of history, the plague has magical origins, and is turning people into stone. Similarly, most of us learned at least the basics of Guy Fawkes and the plot to blow up Parliament and the King, but in this adaptation the reason is not religious based bickering over the throne, but bickering over what way to wield magic is best. Yet the thing about magic, at least in this book, is that it behaves an awful lot like a deity, and those who use it think that their way is the most respectful way to do it. As the story unfolds, Thomas is forced to question the long-lasting feud of his society, and the necessity of taking a side. Through his evolving relationship with a girl who practices magic differently from his family, Thomas finds himself wondering if either side is wholly right, and if it wouldn’t be better for them to try to arrive at a mutual understanding.
So, although Thomas did annoy me for long parts of the book, his eventual awakening was refreshing, and poignant. The story’s conclusion will leave readers pondering how societies can become so heavily divided that they fail to be able to compromise, or even to see those who are different, as fellow citizens of humanity. At what point, for example, do men and governments decide to start killing or oppressing those who are different? At what point is rebellion both good and necessary…and can treason ever be a force for positive change? Guy Fawkes and his historical co-conspirators do meet their factual demise, but the end of the story avoids being too sad or grim, offering up a promising road into the future for those who are willing to follow their hearts.