Book Review: The Inquisitor's Tale, or The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog By Adam Gidwitz & Illuminated by Hatem Aly
If this story were set in the present day, we might call them "superheroes." In 13th century France, they're considered "saints." The three main characters in The Inquisitor's Tale don't know where their supernatural powers come from, but as the stories of their "miracles" grow, so do rumors, debate, and the list of powerful people who want to stop them. What makes someone (whether human or dog) a saint? This is merely one of the thought-provoking questions about faith, morality, prejudice, and freedom of thought raised by Adam Gidwitz's Newbery Honor winning book.
With such heavy themes, this might sound like difficult or serious reading. But The Inquisitor's Tale also has plenty of thrilling adventures, gross-out humor, and appealing characters. It is written in a fun, conversational voice and has an unusual structure. Reminiscent of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, various characters of different backgrounds share what they know about the magical children and the strange occurrences associated with them.
The central group is admirably diverse, considering the historical setting: Jeanne, a white Catholic peasant girl, has visions that predict the future; William, a young bi-racial monk (his mother was from Northern Africa), is unusually large and has superhuman strength; Jacob is a Jewish boy with healing powers; and finally there is their mascot, Jeanne's miraculously resurrected greyhound, Gwenforte. From the tales of the nun, librarian, butcher, and other travelers gathered and gossiping in the inn, we learn that both agents of the Inquisition and King Louis IX are on the hunt for them. The children end up together through a series of exciting events, but each of them must deal with suspicions and mistrust of the other two arising from religion, skin color, or gender.
Don't be intimidated by the thickness of the book, because it's not as long as it looks. The wide margins leave space for clever "illuminations," similar to those found in actual medieval texts. Unlike traditional illustrations, these are more like doodles that sometimes have nothing to do with the action of the story and may even question or contradict the author's words. "The author and illuminator are unique individuals, with unique interpretations of the story, and of the meaning behind it," according to an introductory note. This question of whether perspectives can be different, but equally valid, fits perfectly with the themes of the whole book.
From beginning to end, there are plenty of twists and surprises to hold readers' interest. Some may have trouble following the convoluted, nonlinear plot, but others will get even more pleasure out of the book for the same reason. The Inquisitor's Tale is best suited to children at least nine years old because of the complex structure as well as some challenging topics. The themes are handled with enough depth to interest much older readers as well, including adults, while still keeping a kid-appropriate jovial mood. Readers who enjoy historical fiction set in the medieval era, as well as fans of fantasy inspired by folklore and legends - or anyone who likes a good fart joke - will not be able to put this book down.