King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

December 27th, 2020

When King of Shadows opens, it’s 1999 and we’re introduced to Nat Field, who’s in a company of all-male actors, ages 11-18, who are preparing to travel from the US to the UK to perform two Shakespeare plays in the newly-rebuilt Globe theatre. “We were going into a kind of time warp,” Nat thinks (6). Since this is a time-slip book, that turns out to be 100% true, though Nat doesn’t know it yet. Nat, whose parents are both dead, is a good actor, and theater is an escape for him: the company is a family, and he thinks of backstage as “our space, my space, a kind of home” (12). I like Nat’s first glimpse of 20th-century London: “Looking down from the airplane, you saw a sprawling city of red roofs and grey stone, scattered with green trees, with the River Thames winding through the middle crisscrossed by bridge after bridge.” (14). But en route to the Globe, things start to get weird: Nat has a “giddy feeling,” like the buildings are “moving, circling”; he hears “a snatch of bright music” and smells “the sweet scent of lilies” and then something else, something “that was not sweet at all but awful, disgusting, like a sewer” (21).

Later that night, Nat feels sick and falls into a feverish sleep; when he wakes the next morning he finds himself on a straw mattress in “another London, a London hundreds of years ago” (34). As it turns out, Nat is in 1599 in the place of another Nat Field—a boy who, like him, is to play Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe. (In this production, Nat soon learns, the part of Oberon will be played by Shakespeare himself!)

I found the scene-setting/Nat’s adjustments to his new situation to be alternately fun and clunky: it was fun to read about Nat getting a tumbling lesson and a fencing lesson in 1599, but some of the descriptions of Elizabethan London felt heavy-handed. Nat’s interactions with Shakespeare, though, are great: Nat is still reeling with grief from his father’s death, and Shakespeare comforts him, and it’s just the sweetest dynamic/I nearly cried several times. I also enjoyed the description of the 1599 performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—the costumes, the audience, and even the presence (unknown to most of the crowd) of the Queen herself.

Nat’s eventual return to the 20th century is hard for him, but I like that he’s consoled by poetry and by place—by reading a Shakespeare sonnet and by looking at “the River Thames, which flowed on fast and grey-green and unchanging, just as it had last week, just as it had four or forty centuries ago” (163).

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