Savage Tale of Life in the Middle Ages

Captives of Time by Malcolm Bosse (Delacorte Press: $14.95; hardcover; 268 pp.)

If your vision of Europe in the Middle Ages features courteous knights in shining armor performing brave deeds and other acts of chivalry, that picture will be shattered by Malcolm Bosse's stunning novel, "Captives of Time." There is no chivalry in the scenes described by the narrator, Anne, in flight from a band of marauding soldiers who murdered her parents and looted their paper mill.

Anne, her younger brother Niklas and one small rabbit overlooked by the soldiers begin a dangerous journey in search of an uncle; she knows only that he's a smith in a town to the north. Along the way, Anne must protect herself at a time when a woman traveling alone was fair game. She must also shield Niklas, white-haired and speechless since he was struck by lightning and always in danger from people afraid he may bring bad luck.

But Anne manages to find her uncle Albrecht and--almost as difficult--to find favor with him. Albrecht is obsessed with clocks; he has designed a clock driven by weights but works maniacally to make a spring-driven clock, furiously destroying his failures every night. Anne learns not only to understand the mechanism of the huge clock but to make drawings of it. After her uncle's death, she and her brother undertake another long trek, to carry the drawings to the city where a clock tower is being built. Although the men resent her presence, she works with them until the clock is finished.

Death Is Constant

A drawing of Death, the Grim Reaper, opens each section of the novel. The macabre symbol is apt. Death stalks every page of this story: death by the Plague and other diseases that ravage Europe, and random death in a world where brutality and cruelty prevail over kindness and generosity. Death comes to Anne's young lover at the hands of a knight and his men. Death comes to Anne's uncle when he refuses to satisfy a greedy duke. Rape is as commonplace as murder, as Anne soon learns. Life is short, and life is cheap.

Yet for all her intelligence and courage, Anne is a vulnerable young woman, only 16 when she begins her story. Her struggle to survive is matched by her struggle to cling to her faith in a God who seems to have forgotten or forsaken her and those she loves. In some ways, the most difficult journey she makes is her own inward spiritual quest.

This is a distinguished novel by a writer who never condescends, never simplifies for his young adult readers. Bosse's characters are emotionally contemporary but historically anchored in a detailed panorama of Medieval Europe. The rich vocabulary is often archaic, from what people wear to the food they cook and eat, from the knight's armor and weaponry to the clock-maker's tools--wonderfully evocative words even if you don't bother to look them up.

But the book is not for everybody. The themes are harsh, and Bosse gives no quarter to soften them. Readers accustomed to the easy access of novels set in the blandly familiar here and now will be challenged by time and place distant from our own. For those willing to explore this rough terrain, the rewards are unusually satisfying.

Carolyn Meyer's most recent books for young adults are "Denny's Tapes," a novel, and "Voices of Northern Ireland: Growing Up in a Troubled Land."

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