Nat Fields is a young boy with a tragic family history who has just joined a new theatre group. Run by the eccentric Arby Babbage, Nat finds solace and escape from his past with the rehearsals of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Nat is to play the part of Puck, and despite some minor difficulties, Nat is happy with his role as an actor, especially as the director plans to make the performance as loyal as possible to the original performances (including having boys play the part of women).
But then, after a terrible illness, Nat awakes to find himself in the past. He is in 1599, acting amongst Shakespeare’s theatre troupe at the Globe Theatre. Once more Nat is in the role of Puck, but this time the performance is for the secret benefit of Queen Elizabeth herself. Nat’s co-star is none other than Will Shakespeare himself, who brings a sense of calm and healing to Nat’s painful past and his present condition.
Dealing with his terrifying new surroundings, Nat looks to the theatre to help him cope with bullies, political intrigue, cultural differences and the sometimes brutal nature of England in another century. But haunting him throughout is the question: why is he here? And is he ever going to return to his contemporary world?
Susan Cooper is the award-winning fantasy author of The Dark is Rising sequence, which remains her best work. Though King of Shadows is a pleasant read, it doesn’t really stand out as an essential inclusion of the time-slip or fantasy genre. The presentation of the Elizabethan era is done very well, and I couldn’t spot any inconsistencies or historical faults (not that I’m an expert on the subject). Furthermore, Cooper uses real historical characters and situations in both the past and present, predominately the real figure of Nat Field of 1599 and the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre by Sam Wanamaker in 1999. And of course Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare, who are vividly brought to vivid, realistic life. All this combines to make King of Shadows a learning experience as well as an enjoyable read. Young readers will also come away with a clear sense of the plot and humor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
An interesting premise, a clever twist and a bittersweet ending, King of Shadows is well worth the read.