Jepp, Who Defied the Stars

You know how sometimes you get a book that everyone has been telling you is just fantastic, and you end up underwhelmed? And then other times, you pick up something that no one is reading, but the critical reviews and description sound good, and it turns out to be so much more than you expected? Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, by Katherine Marsh, is one of the latter.

When teens think of dwarfs, they may think Lord of the Rings, but this book is about non-magical, vertically-challenged people. Marsh spins a story about a neglected niche of the renaissance, the treatment of dwarfs in the houses of royalty and nobility. She was inspired by the paintings of Diego Velazquez, who created many portraits featuring dwarfs.  To “collect” dwarfs was a sign of wealth, and their treatment was somewhere between pets and slaves. As they were often employed as jesters, there seems to have been an assumption of an inverse relationship between height and wit. Although they were often pampered like lap dogs, they were not free to leave their masters.

This story is about Jepp, the real-life dwarf who served Tycho Brahe around 1600, and much of the book is historically accurate, although the author has taken a few liberties. Jepp grew up in an inn, living a fairly normal life and surrounded by loving family, until a traveler came through one day during his sixteenth year and offered him a thrilling life at the court of the Infanta, who was actually the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of the Spanish Netherlands. Here in court, Jepp had the opportunity to indulge his love of learning and gain an excellent education. He lived in a miniaturized portion of the castle with several other dwarfs, and they maintained their own private universe, enjoying their various pursuits, but always on call to entertain her highness. Because of an extreme emergency, Jepp attempted to help a friend to escape the castle, and in a very complicated disaster, he ended up being bound and thrown into a cart headed to Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg island.

Jepp is always tortured by his ignorance of his father’s identity, and his quest to discover his past drives his fortunes and misfortunes in the present. Jepp experiences love and loss and love again, and his adventures are extraordinary because of his place in society. Both the Infanta and the famous astronomer, Tycho Brahe, are shown through the eyes of someone who sees both their lofty positions in the world and the pettiness of their values. Marsh offers a great deal of food for thought on topics such as the medieval relationship between astronomy and astrology, free will and fate, faith and science, and ownership of one’s own soul. Although the story is filled with adventure, Jepp’s introspection makes for a deeper read. Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Note: I read a library copy of this book, and my opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. The painting is Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez.

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