There are some of you who will know that ‘King of Shadows’ is a Susan Cooper novel, and of you’re aware of this author and her work, you will probably also know that there is no such thing as a bad Susan Cooper novel. You might also be wondering why I’m reviewing a book which was first published in 1999; I hate to admit this, because I’m a huge fan of the author, but ‘King of Shadows’ is a new book, to me. I really wish I hadn’t left it so long to read it.
I am going through a ‘time travel’ phase with my reading at the moment. As well as ‘King of Shadows’, I’ve also read ‘Hagwitch’ by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick in the last few weeks and I’m currently reading the (utterly marvellous) ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ by Connie Willis. This is largely because ‘Tider’, my own little book, features time-travel, of a sort; becoming familiar with the norms of the genre is important to me. I love books which use the idea of ‘time-slip’, where there are two interlinked stories being told side by side, one which takes place in ‘the present’ (whenever that is) and the other which takes place in the past, or the future; ‘Hagwitch’ is a book like this. ‘King of Shadows’ has some time-slip features, but it’s largely a book about a boy going back in time, for a very specific and important reason.
The book opens in a rehearsal room. A group of young actors are preparing themselves for a special performance of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, to be staged in the refurbished Globe Theatre in London; all the players are American, and to them, it’s the trip of a lifetime. They are a specially assembled troupe, all male, designed to mimic the original staging conditions of Shakespeare’s play – because, of course, in Shakespeare’s time women could not act on stage – and they have all been hand-picked for their particular acting talents. Among these wonderful young actors is a boy named Nathan Field, who, as well as being a marvellously talented actor, is dealing with the painful loss of his father and mother. The dynamics between the boys in the acting troupe – the inevitable bullying, friendship-forging, and competitiveness – is really well handled, and Cooper skilfully brings us into the heart of the group.
When the boys arrive in London, Nathan (or ‘Nat’) barely has time to acclimatise before he falls ill. After dinner one evening, he becomes extremely sick, and is rushed to hospital; he slips into unconsciousness, but not before having a vision of himself being taken out of the world, and flying over the surface of the earth like he was floating in space…
When he wakes, he finds himself in a strange place – a smelly, loud, overwhelming place, where people speak with strange accents. The strangest thing of all, though is this: everyone seems to know Nat. They know his name, they know who he is, and in this new and disorienting setting, Nat is still an actor with a dramatic troupe. He is engaged in rehearsals for a play – a new, exciting play called ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – and gradually, Nat realises he has travelled back in time. He has, for some reason, wound up in 1599, and even more astoundingly, he is one of Shakespeare’s own players, and part of the play’s original production.
Susan Cooper is an author whose writing leaves me breathless. She never fails to reduce me to tears at least once during the reading of her novels, and this one is no different. The relationship which develops between Nat and Shakespeare is almost unbearably beautiful; Nat has lost his parents in a life-rending tragedy, and Shakespeare has just lost his son, Hamnet. The two bond, in a deep and loving way, over their shared grief, and Cooper explores this in a way which is never mawkish, but which is simply touching and true. As an actor, Nat knows how lucky he is to have ended up as part of this group of actors, and he makes the most of every second, never knowing where (or when) he will be when he wakes up or whether he’ll be wrenched out of this world at any moment. His initial disorientation and discomfort at Elizabethan life soon turn into deep attachment, both to the era and the people he meets, and every moment he spends there is filled with urgency and the poignancy of imminent loss. Every tiny detail of his life and of the Elizabethan world is described with such skill that the reader feels they are living in sixteenth-century London as they read; I felt, at all times, that I was part of the book I was reading.
Eventually, of course, things have to return to normal. The book’s ending is a little exposition-heavy, but I hardly even noticed: I was so busy enjoying the explanation for Nat’s adventure, and the connections between him and the past, that I was happy to ignore the slightly unrealistic way in which Nat’s announcement that he has met the real Shakespeare is accepted, eventually, by his friends. I found myself moved to tears by the story, and by the sensitive way Susan Cooper handled her material, but also because I loved Nat so much. As a character, he is marvellous. The burden he has to bear is one which would crush even the strongest of adults, but he has held on to his passion for acting throughout everything he has suffered, and the reader knows he is going to have a wonderful and beautiful life. He is exquisitely described, as one would expect of Susan Cooper, and the interplay between the modern and Elizabethan world is thrilling.
Of Susan Cooper’s books, nothing will ever replace ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence in my list of favourites. ‘Victory’ was my next favourite, after those, but it has now been knocked off that spot by ‘King of Shadows’. I loved this book. If you haven’t read it already, then read it now. If you’ve read it before, read it again.
Whatever you do, just read.