Monday, July 26, 2010

An Antic Disposition by Alan Gordon

Theophilus, known as Feste, his wife Claudia and their daughter, Portia, have been ensconced in their shelter, a refuge for fools in Austria, ever since they returned from Constantinople and realized that the church has out to destroy the guild. Temporarily lying low with the other fools, they have busied themselves with chores (Feste chopping wood, Claudia hunting to supplement the available food). Now at dinner, some of the apprentice fools want a tale from Feste to enliven their supper.

Although he won't tell one himself, he says that the current leader of the guild, Father Gerald, knows plenty of tales. And so he is prevailed upon to tell one from his own younger years. The tale concerns a Fool named Terence of York, sent to the far north to become the court fool to Ørvendil of Slesvig in Denmark. But his fool name is instead given by Ørvendil's young son, who, unable to pronounce his name correctly, Christens him "Yorick".

Terence is there to make Ørvendil's reign more stable and prosperous, and while he is in Slesvig, he is under the command of Gerald, who resides as the chief fool to the current King of Denmark, but in reality, he has much of a free hand, as Gerald is more concerned with his own problems. As it is, he befriends Ørvendil's son, Amleth, and teaches him some of the requirements of being a fool, such as juggling. He also brings the two closer, teaching Ørvendil to have fun with his son, and to play with him and not have him shut up all day with his mother.

But the main problems that Ørvendil has is with his brother, a man named Fengi. Fengi lusts for power and control, and he's not above intriguing in his brother's lands, or castle, or even family, to do so. His first target is Gorm, his brother's seneschal, whom he suborns by first implying that Ørvendil mighr be seeking to overthrow the King, and that Ørvendil should have an eye kept on him. From such small implications do problems happen. Fengi next appeals to Ørvendil's wife, who wishes that her husband would seek out higher position and more power, rather than apparently being content with his lot.

At length, Fengi challenges his brother to a duel over his lands, and after donning his armor and bidding his wife goodbye (after a parting drink of ale from her), he goes to battle his brother- and dies at his brother's hands, even though his brother cannot compare to him in swordcraft.

Amleth, who by this time is a youth, is devastated by his father's death, and hates Fergi, who quickly steps into his brother's position, marrying his wife and taking over the castle. Gorm, the steward's wife dies in childbirth, leaving behind his young daughter, Alfhild, and an infant son, Lother. Terence, threatened by Fergi with death, raises Amleth as best he can before Gorm kills him, Meanwhile, Amleth, who has become a moody sort, and often seems to be crazy, travels to Paris to attend university, and becomes a fool.

Returning home, he seems to become once again mad, but finds time to romance Gorm's daughter, Alfhild, who has loved him, and he her, since they were both small children. But when Fergi makes plans to betray the King of Denmark, and Alfhild dies, her death blamed on suicide, her brother Lother is told that it was Amleth who killed her by Fengi. Unbeknownst to Fengi and his wife, Gerutha, Lother has been trained by Amleth to be a fool, much as he was by Terence/Yorick. Fengi has had quite enough of Amleth and is ready to do him in- and he hopes to make Lother his tool and his weapon to do so.

But can two young fools take out the treacherous Fergi and the mercenaries he's hired to try and overthrow the King, and escape safely from a hold that is meant to be their deathtrap? And what connection do Feste and Claudia have to those two young fools? Can claudia ferret out the connection to her husband and daughter?

I loved this book, which, if you've been paying attention, is based on the story behind Hamlet. My only complaint is that we don't know what all of this has to do with the Fool's Guild and the main characters until almost the very end of the book. I mean, it's an effective story, but at least in "The Widow of Jerusalem", we know that Feste/Theophilus is part of the story from the very beginning- because he's the one telling it.

Here, not until the end do we find out the connection to the modern-day characters from the story, except that Father Gerald, who is telling the story, is one of the characters, and that it happened when he was young, or at least younger than he is now. It was hard to feel anything for Terence, although, to be fair, his identity is hinted at in the story. In the end, the mystery turns out to be like the "real ending" of the movie "Clue", where everyone is responsible for at least one other death, and some here for more than one.

Another excellent story and book, and while the unknown identity of the protagonists is like being told a story with completely new characters, Alan Gordon succeeds in making us sympathize with them, and hope for them to succeed. By the end, I was hoping that the characters in the story would end up being important to the Fool's Guild now, and I was at least partly right. Definitely one to check out and read. Recommended.

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