King of Shadows is a clever, sensitive novel by Susan Cooper. It begins with an unhappy American boy, Nat Field, being selected to join a troupe of actors who are heading to London to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Globe. Whilst in London Nat starts to feel unwell and goes to bed. When he wakes up he is a new boy drafted into a company of players in Elizabethan London. Playing Puck in the modern Globe is nothing to acting alongside William Shakespeare. Shakespeare and Nat find themselves drawn to each other through a common bereavement: Shakespeare has lost his son, and Nat his father. Will Nat get stuck in Elizabethan England or face the even scarier prospect of going back to his own time and losing Shakespeare with all he means to him?
Not only does Susan Cooper have to pull off a convincing time-slip novel with strong Elizabethan detail, she has to cross pens with the greatest writer of them all and make this challenging charaterisation come alive. For a little while I thought she wasn't going to manage it. The Elizabethan setting was managed well (and grittily), and the little in-fights amongst the cast convincing enough, but how was she going to make Shakespeare live? Little by little Cooper spins a stronger and stronger fabric for her narrative. By focusing on him as much as bereaved father as "Great Writer" Will Shakespeare gradually convinces.
By the end I thought this a moving example of older children's fiction that works on many levels: a competent fantasy, a well executed piece of historical narrative, and increasingly elegant characterisation. It is a wonderful background novel to understanding Elizabethan theatre, the process of writing and putting on a play, and what Elizabethan audiences are like. It is also a great study of loss and bereavement. However A Midsummer Night's Dream is so crucial to the scenes between the actors, and so reflective of themes in the wider narrative, that a good understanding of the play is, I think, required, especially for a child to whom the whole concept of Shakepeare and his world may be new.
If you know a child who has read, or seen the play, or has read and discussed a modern re-telling, then this is a superb support for Shakespearian teaching. It is a lovely, moving book, but may be more enjoyed by adults than children.
Death: Nat's parents have both died. His father, it emerges near the end, has killed himself and Nat was the first to find the body, "...there was blood on the floor, bright red, a pool of red blood, spreading ..." Nat's pain and loss are very real, and very subtly built up as the story goes on. Like most people damaged by bereavement Nat is functioning. Cooper shows what it costs Nat to seem "normal". The second loss, of Shakespeare when Nat returns to his own time, is used to explore the mechanism of bereavement. It is all beautifully done, and may help a bereaved child at the right point.
Peril: minor, linked to problems of going back in time, and to not understanding your world. There are also some political threats to Shakespeare and the players over the politics of Elizabethan England. The whole company is fearful at times.
Anything else: Elizabethan England is of necessity rather earthy. Not much worse than an episode of Horrible Histories though. There is discussion of the use of pig's blood as a prop and how "the groundlings are happy so long as they see it gush..", that sort of thing. Plus rather colourful discussions of bear baiting (a deliberately blinded bear, and someone's dog is disemboweled), which affects Nat terribly because he can't bear the sight of the pool of blood after his father's death.
Other reviews and useful websites:
There is a New York Times review here.