Review for Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi

Yes, Avi, one word. Like Cher, but with books. And possibly fewer drag impersonators.

Not quite sure where my age-target-group compass is pointing (suffering from Jack Sparrow's undecided compass, perhaps?), I checked out a few YA books from the library a couple days ago. The first one that I read was Avi's Crispin: The Cross of Lead. The third book was on the new fiction shelf, but the library did not deign to carry the 2nd book of the series on its shelves (though it had about twenty of Avi's other books) at that time, so I just got book one. I can't abide reading the first and third books of a trilogy and not know what happens in the second. Drives me batty. I'm still wondering what happened in this one trilogy I read back in college, whose name I've completely forgotten now...

Ahem. The Cross of Lead follows the adventures of a young orphan named Asta's Boy, who soon learns that his real name is Crispin. He lives in a tiny English village in the 1300's, and has never been beyond its borders. Until his mother passes away, and suddenly the authority in the village, the lord's steward John Aycliffe, accuses him of a crime he didn't commit and puts a penalty on his head so severe that any may kill him on sight. What's a boy to do? He must flee everything he's ever known in order to try and save himself, carrying with him only a cross of lead that his mother used to wear.

Out in the wide world, Crispin stumbles across a plague-dead village from years past, and in it he finds a boisterous red-bearded man in a jester's cap. The man is loud and rough and pushy, and it's clear from Crispin's first hours of reaction to the man that he fears him to be mad, violent, or both. This part sort of took me aback, as from Crispin's POV, the man was horribly rude and possibly dangerous. He binds Crispin into his service, then berates him for being bound by his word.

But this was a clever trick by Avi, who had to let the world open up to Crispin by small degrees. Crispin, who had never seen the dress of the rich or official personages. Crispin, who had never seen a mummer's show. Crispin, who had never traveled, could not sew, could not make snares, could not read or write. Soon enough, I realized that Crispin only knew 150 people in all the world, and none of them dared to reach for such large and dangerous ideas as his new master, Bear the juggler did. Once we see that Bear is a visionary on the cusp of greatness, our fear for Crispin becoming either bait or breakfast are set aside.

Bear teaches him skills both practical (sewing, juggling, playing the recorder for coins) and social (where to look when you speak to people). As they travel cross-country, hoping to avoid Crispin's pursuers, they come to a city in time for a midsummer fair, only to find that their pursuers have come here as well. Much is learned and revealed through secret conversations and through chance encounters inside the city walls, and at the end, Crispin must step into his own and claim his place to save both his own life and Bear's.

You can't have a story like this without a bad guy, but they were pretty shadowy throughout the whole book. Much more was spent on Crispin and his unfolding new personality and skills under Bear's tutelage. It was made clear at the end that the bad guy was the bad guy because he broke his vow (for no good reason other than he was angry enough to), and the good guy was the good guy who (accidentally) dispatched him. Apparently, fighting is the answer in medieval England. I saw a couple more socially acceptable solutions to this one, including dealing directly with a couple of the other "bad" characters in a nonviolent way, but the author chose the fight and flight. It's possible that book two will deal with repercussions of not resolving the inheritance issue completely (at least in the bad guys' eyes). But the heroes did escape from a very claustrophobic scenario and made their getaway, so all's well that ends well.

No fantasy in this one, just straight historical fiction. A good, serious read with fun historical facts and details that really fleshed out the reading experience. I'll be happy to give this one a 4 of 5 stars.

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