Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Last Song

The Last Song by Eva Wiseman is a gripping juvenile fiction novel set in Toledo, Spain during the infamous Spanish Inquisition.  The Inquisitor General has come to the city, and while the Jews themselves are not exactly treated with kindness, it's the "Conversos" who are being persecuted here - the people who only recently converted to Christianity.  If any of them are caught or suspected to still be practicing the Jewish faith while pretending to be Christian, they are arrested for heresy and tortured into a confession, whereupon they are burned at the stake.

Fourteen-year-old Isabel has seen the grim procession of prisoners through the city, and though a devout Catholic herself, questions the humanity of it all.  She is quickly hushed, though, because to even doubt the Inquisition is to mark yourself as either a heretic or a traitor.  Isabel is from a fairly well-off and respected family - her father is physician to the royal court - and inside the walls of her home and with the comfort of her personal shrine to the Virgin Mother, the world feels safe and normal.  Her world is turned upside down, though, when she is betrothed to the son of Don Alfonso, a Cavalier.  Luis is cruel and disrespectful, but her parents ignore her pleas not to marry him.  They insist it is to ensure her safety from the Inquisition, as Don Alfonso's family has a long history in the Catholic church; Isabel is confused why she should need any protection from the Inquisition, but her parents then tell her the impossible truth - they are Conversos.  Their grandparents were forced to convert, but their family continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret.

The news breaks everything Isabel thought she knew about herself - she feels she is as devout a Catholic as ever, but is she truly also a Jew?  Can she be both, or must she choose?  Whatever she does, however, she is sworn to secrecy, for all their lives depend on no one discovering the truth of their heritage.  Isabel wants to learn all she can about this new part of her identity, but can she satisfy her mounting curiosity without giving away her family's secret?  The Inquisitor General's men are everywhere, and it is impossible to know who can be trusted.

I got this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and I am really pleased that I've also received a copy of another book by the same author, because The Last Song is fantastic.  I read it through in one night; it got pretty late, but I couldn't bring myself to put it down.  I caught myself holding my breath through pages, anxious for Isabel and her family; I could not go to sleep without finding out what was going to happen.

Isabel and her family were so endearing to me; they're very loving with each other, and kind to the servants and slaves in their household.  The slaves are actually more like indentured servants, since we find out that Isabel's father tends to free them after they've served a certain number of years, which I think for the time is extremely uncommon and very generous.  Isabel at one point is even shocked at the impatient way her friend Brianda treats her own slave.

One of my favorite characters is Yonah; the silversmith's son (and a Jew, though you can probably tell that from his name).  He plays rather a big part in the book, and he's either very foolish or very brave.  Maybe both, since he is also young - he's about Isabel's age.  I also especially liked Sofia, Isabel's slave.  She and Yussuf, one of their other slaves, are both reliable and fiercely loyal to the family.  This probably has a lot to do with the fact that they aren't treated horribly, though.  I doubt they would be quite the same toward the family if they were treated the way I imagine most slaves were probably treated.  Sofia mentions to Isabel, for example, that Luis whips his slaves (and probably he does worse than that as well).

The Inquisition is obviously a huge part of the plot in this book, and though it's meant for middle-graders/young adults, you should not expect much sugar-coating, though it's not too much for the target audience, either.  Isabel witnesses some things in Toledo that her parents would rather keep her from experiencing, and the reader, in turn, witnesses some of the atrocities of the Inquisition through Isabel.

The Last Song is juvenile fiction, but while it's a riveting history lesson for younger readers, I would  also recommend it to adults for a quick and engrossing read.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I'll certainly be looking out for the rest of Wiseman's novels.



Tundra Books

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1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a wonderful read! I love stories that educate as well as entertain me and the Inquisition happens to be one of those periods of history that's been niggling at me lately. Great review - I've added another book to my TBR!