Hartley has provided a perfect gateway for children and teenagers to experience Shakespeare from a young age. Shakespeare isn’t remedial literature and certainly difficult at times, but with a strong character and a realistic environment, Hartley has created a conduit that gently introduces complex themes that parallel the life of a young teenager. While some of Shakespeare’s more severe themes are sacrificed to appeal to a more juvenile audience, a strong sense of mystery, a time-travelling twist and an unexpected conclusion come together to satiate the reader’s expectation.
The historical aspects of the story resonate strongly, and with each shift back to Shakespeare’s past, I found myself giddy with anticipation. Hartley’s simplistic prose captures the aesthetics of an ancient world with surprising ease, and scenes of endurance flow with a nature flair that left me in awe. Timeless scenes from Macbeth are reiterated with hypnotising exposition, and some curious and titillating theories—such as the reason behind Lady Macbeth’s lack of children, and the motive of the three witches—are proposed to keep the gears in the reader’s mind turning. These theories add relevance to the narrative, and with the focus on a younger audience, they offer a critical point of view that will encourage readers to think outside of the box, a mandatory skill when approaching Shakespeare.
Although the modern school scenes are grounded in out reality, the castle itself is no less mysterious. When Hartley takes the reader on an expedition through the school, there is a reminiscent quality that harkens back to Rowling’s Harry Potter, which offers moments of tranquility between the madness of the past. A small romance also blossoms between the two core characters, and it’s sweet sprinkle of sugar that adds just enough to the story without taking away from the focal narrative.
At the risk of nitpicking, I have two minor complaints I must bring to the table. Firstly, I would have loved for more time to have been spent in the past, delving into extended Shakespearean elements. Secondly, the age of the characters while in our world is far too limiting. At the tender age of thirteen, they are allowed to be more curious toward their mysterious circumstances, though it also stretches the imagination too thin. Sam, our main protagonists, often acts far wiser than any adults around him. Perhaps if they had been a few years older, with a little bit of expected maturity, it wouldn’t have caused such a dissension. I understand their ages are intended to reflect the target audience, which keeps this issue a minor one, and it never reacts corrosively upon the rest of the story.
The conclusion was excellent, and while I was convinced I had unravelled the inevitable twist early on, I was still taken by surprise—a rarity for a young adult novel. It was emotional and shocking, and one of the better cliffhangers I’ve ever read. The epilogue also offers a charming and poignant taste of the narrative to follow, and I have to be honest: I’m excited! Hartley has established a complex and intriguing world with many threads neatly woven together, and his adept ability to tell a convincing frame story should allow future instalments to impress in all the right ways.
This book earns four stars easily, with full stars for its great World Building, Story and Writing Style.