Book review

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price (1998)

This is one of those books which is long enough and intense enough to completely overwhelm you, so make sure you have plenty of time before you start because you won't want to put it down until the end. A clear weekend should do it. But it is for mature readers.

Time travel. The truth of a rather grim twentyfirst century is that the glorious achievement of time travel is being developed by profiteering industry for the rape of other worlds in other centuries. If gold, oil and gas can be found they can be brought back to the twentyfirst century. FUP, the development corporation, have many experiments going on in many places but have successfully managed to put a (time travel) Tube through to the sixteenth century No Man's Land between England and Scotland. Well, actually, it is not No Man's Land because it is occupied and defended by the outlawed but powerful and vengeful Sterkarm family who live in a fortified tower. Life in this border country is an unforgiving mix of sheep farming and reiving, that is, raiding other local farmsteads owned by other families and plundering what you can.

Inside the Sterkarm Tower we meet Andrea. She has been placed by FUP 16th-side in order to act as a local link and go-between. She loves it and we see the Tower through her eyes - or perhaps rather we smell it through her nose. Andrea approaches her job in a rather scholarly fashion, studying the local language, the way of life, the people, and hopes to write a book in due course.

People are people anywhere though and she can't live up to the 'no fraternization' clause written into her contract of employment. Having no other way to explain her appearance, the Sterkarms have welcomed her as an Elf-May and offered her more warmth and friendship than she has ever enjoyed 21st-side. She has become emotionally involved with Per, the only son of Isobel and Old Toorkild Sterkarm.

Imagine the chill dread that falls on the Sterkarms and Andrea alike, then, when young Per is fatally wounded whilst out 'on a ride' chasing after some sheep rustlers. He could be saved by modern hospital treatment and at the same time holding Per as a hostage 21st-side might squeeze a bit more cooperation out of his family while their country is despoiled...

Now we learn why we must beware of shaking hands with a Sterkarm. You can take his right hand to shake it, but he will still draw his weapon with his left hand - for that is what Sterkarm means: lefthander. These people are loyal and loving but they will also argue, lie and steal. They will not honour their word, especially if it is forced from them. Everything they own is in that desolate borderland and if FUP make them, they will fight for it. This is not an evenly matched contest, Kalashnikovs against longbowmen, but the Sterkarms are much better at fighting than soft employees of the 21st century. They get much more practice. Susan Price captures the vindictiveness of the fighting with a grim reality. You will have to witness a few cut throats and the odd skewering with an eight-foot lance but this tale is so well told that I don't think it will unbalance your enjoyment.

This is a highly emotional book. How can Andrea be on both sides if a real, bloody fight develops between the 16th and the 21st? It is to her credit, I think, that she manages it long after she might have withdrawn from her position as go-between. How on earth can she possibly choose between the two sides? Could you? How does it feel to be a twentyfirst century elf? It isn't much to be proud of, I think.

The characters in this book are not children. On the 21st side they are misguided and arrogant adults. On the 16th side they would be lovable and naive adults if only they didn't have this habit of bringing home the head of anyone who offended against them. It's a story of romance and revenge for teenagers, set against a stark historical background, which takes a long, cool look at the values of our society.

What can I read next?

If it is the adult, epic quality of this book which appeals to you, you might enjoy this one by Jan Mark:

Also this one by Melvin Burgess:

Another love story set in the past, you could have a look at this one by Jamila Gavin:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Sterkarm Handshake features in these lists: