Goodreads: The Inquisitor’s Tale
Published: September 27, 2016
1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.
Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.
As some of you who follow the blog know, I study medieval literature, so I really, really wanted to like The Inquisitor’s Tale. The world simply needed a middle grade novel inspired by Saint Guinefort (a greyhound who really did acquire his own cult during the Middle Ages). Touches of Joan of Arc and other historical figures make this book right up my alley. So I’m sad to say I was bored through most of the book, and I really don’t think I would have enjoyed it if I’d read it as a child.
Most of my pleasure in the book came from playing “spot the medieval reference.” And medieval references are something Gidwitz is great at. The book draws on a lot of medieval tales but mostly uses them as inspiration, rather than using them in their entirety. So Jeanne has elements of Joan of Arc, but she isn’t Joan. She has visions, for instance, but she is not called to lead France through a war. Jacob isn’t any historical figure in particular, but represents the Jews who lived in France in the Middle Ages.
And Gidwitz portrays the attitudes of the Middle Ages pretty faithfully. Though there are violent parts of the book, one could argue that the darkest parts of the story are the various prejudices the children protagonists encounter: against Jews, Muslims, women, peasants, etc. Gidwitz explores these issues thoughtfully, while asking some tough questions like “How can someone say they hate Jews while befriending a Jewish boy?” Gidwitz shows the nuances in medieval thought, which is great, since the Middle Ages often get dismissed as a boring period of complete ignorance in pop culture.
The format of the book is also clever, if you’re into Chaucer. Gidwitz alludes to The Canterbury Tales by having different characters tell each chapter and titling them such things as “The Jongleur’s Tale.” There are also asides, as the storytellers interact with each other, in between telling their tales. This structure, however, is also one of the sticking points for me. It means that the protagonists’ story is told by a conglomeration of people who, for the post part, were not really in the story. It creates some distance between the protagonists and the readers. It also means the story is constantly interrupted by the frame tale, which is something I just personally dislike in books.
The other reservation I have is about the plot and pacing. As I mentioned, I was simply bored thought a lot of the book. Stuff was constantly happening, but it took a while for it to all come together into any discernible overarching story. I felt as if I were just watching characters run around inanely for half the book. The only reason I didn’t DNF is because, seriously, I’m really into the Middle Ages.
The Inquisitor’s Tale has really high ratings in general on Goodreads, and I can respect that since the book is clearly well-researched and rather creative. However, this is one instance where I would love to get some children’s opinions on the book. I do not think I would have liked or finished this novel if I had read it when I was in middle school. It’s slow and complex and altogether simply unusual for a children’s book. I didn’t relate to the characters or even understand for half the book what it was they were trying to accomplish. I wonder if this will be a hit with adults more so than with the target audience.