Elizabeth Wein’s books offer so much. The worlds she creates are remarkable in their textures; whether they are set in actual historical pasts or fantasy historical pasts, they are rich with touches large and small that bring the worlds alive for readers. She does something similar with characters, making them complex, flawed, and vivid whether they are the ones we care deeply about, those that terrify us, or simply those a bit more on the fringe of the story. All of them feel fully rounded, ones we readers inhabit fully as we read. Then there is plot — Wein is a master at creating complex, driving, tangled, twisty, and unpredictable plots. Lastly, there is emotion, and not just for the characters — these are books that set readers’ hearts pounding, produce gasps of astonishment, smiles at the wit, and tears of joy and sadness.
Among Wein’s works are two novels set during Word War II: the jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing Code Name Verity and the equally dramatic and heartrending Rose Under Fire. Now we have The Pearl Thief, a prequel to Code Name Verity, featuring a much younger Julie. I admit I was a bit wary starting the novel, wondering if Wein was pushing too far with the same characters , but I needed have worried. This work is marvelous, as fully realized in all its facets as all the others. While the book isn’t out for a while yet, I wanted to get my thoughts down now (in a spoiler free way of course) so as not to have them drift away and to, hopefully, excite those of you waiting for it.
It is 1938 as the story begins and we meet fifteen-year-old Julie heading home to her family’s Scottish estate from her Swiss boarding school for the summer. The death of her grandfather and the need to pay off his extensive debt has meant that the estate has been sold and is being turned into a school. And so Julie’s return is bittersweet, her family occupying a few rooms of the place temporarily until they move out for good. Shortly after her arrival she lands in the hospital, having been hit on the head by an unknown assailant and then saved by local Travelers. Things and people go missing, mysteries pile up and Julie, her brother Jamie, and the Traveler siblings Euan and Ellen try to get to the bottom of it all.
While it has some of the delicious attributes of a cosy mystery, this is far more rich, a highly complex narrative featuring Julie’s coming-of-age (emotionally, sexually, and intellectually), the unpacking of family histories (Julie’s and the Travelers), direct presentations of period prejudices, all within a riveting plot full of Wein’s trademark twists and turns. As in her previous books, Wein creates a rich past world, fascinating characters, dramatic scenes, and great emotional depth. While it is not necessary to have any familiarity with Code Name Verity, those who have it will enjoy the younger Julie, observing her developing into the young woman that she is later on. Finally, in addition to everything else, Wein is just a wonderful wordsmith. I love her sentences, her dry wit. Say this brief bit on page 47.
Mother got up again, with an air of determination.
“Perhaps I’m a witness!” I said relishing the idea.
No one else relished it.
The Pearl Thief is a complete delight. Highly recommended.