“There are some people in this world who have magic in them. Whose very presence makes you happier. Some of those people, it turns out, are children.”
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly immerses us in a story rich with layers of meaning, filled with questions of faith and prejudice, about three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl with visions, William, a Saracen oblate with incredible strength, and Jacob, a Jewish boy whose prayers and herbs miraculously heal. Of course, all with the holy greyhound, Gwenforte, as their steadfast companion.
The story begins with drama and intrigue; we learn that the King of France is hunting these children and their dog. Which peaks our interest because why could this be? We must know.
Gidwitz artfully uses a variety of narrators — the brewster, a chronicler, a jongleur, a monk, a nun, and others — to relate parts of the children’s stories to a curious traveler, our main narrator, who purports to collect stories. (But don’t forget the title. Because that’s a big clue.)
This variety in narrators, their commentary in between stories, and Gidwitz’s skillful writing deftly keeps us in suspense while deeply touching our hearts and minds. What’s more, it’s makes us laugh at times as well. Which is quite amazing if you think about all that in one book!
Set in France during medieval times, The Inquisitor’s Tale embeds you in the historical setting as it contemplates the children’s challenges to survive in a time when miracles are both venerated and feared, intolerance of differences is taught, and faith in God is foundational, for Jews and Christians alike.
Each child, by no fault or means of their own, seems to perform miracles. Jeanne has visions of the future. William can defeat the wicked fiends with only flesh and bone. Jacob uses herbs and prayer to hasten healing.
But, maybe surprisingly, it’s not because of their miracles that makes the king hunt them in the end.
Throughout their journey of faith, prejudice, hypocrisy, miracles, and magic, the children are captured by knights, defeat a farting dragon, befriend a gigantic monk, and travel to the king’s palace where they’ll try to do as the monk, Michelangelo, asks: fight for goodness, wisdom, and what is right by saving the thousands of Jewish books the king’s mother collects to burn.
The children try their best. Michelangelo sacrifices himself. But they are unsuccessful, rescuing no books from the fire.
That is until they remember William’s abandoned book bag back at the inn. Which is where they meet the Inquisitor.
Racing against the terrifying forces of the king and his mother who hunt them for their heretical behavior, the action peaks as the children face off against a hundred knights.
Don’t worry. They will see Michelangelo again, who tells them this: “Whether you go your separate ways or stay together, you will continue to witness — against ignorance, against cruelty, and on behalf of all that is beautiful about this strange and crooked world.”
The wisdom of the story is embedded everywhere — in dialogue, in the narrator’s thoughts, in retold stories. We hear opinions on why bad things happen, we learn that the King, like all people, is loving and hateful and confusing, we learn that dogs can help, and we learn that children are more amazing that we ever knew.
Gidwitz’s writing is masterful. The story is bold, multi-dimensional, and fascinating with compelling, three dimensional characters.
But there’s also the gorgeous artwork to consider. The pages are illustrated, or illuminated as you would say in medieval times, by artist Hatem Aly. The drawings are poignant, whimsical, random, and all together wonderful. Because, just like in medieval texts, the art only sometimes reflects the story and other times doesn’t. Which makes for a charming effect. (Look for the aliens!) (See here for a behind the scenes glimpse of the art in progress.)
Caution for sensitive readers: there are two scenes with a lot of blood as well as some bad words — although in one situation, it’s hysterical. (Because there are two meanings to the word ass after all.)
And please don’t miss the author’s note at the end of the story — it’s fascinating and important.
If you’re not already a fan of Gidwitz, you certainly will be after reading The Inquisitor’s Tale. I highly recommend this book and his other series, A Tale Dark and Grimm. (See those reviews here.)