Jepp, Who Defied The Stars

Marsh, Katherine. Jepp, Who Defied The Stars. (Hyperion: 2012), 369 pages. Historical Fiction: History of Science

Themes: fate vs. free will, prejudice, scientific discovery.

Jepp is a dwarf born in the late sixteenth century in a small village in the Spanish Netherlands (otherwise known today as Belgium). One day, a traveler comes from the court of the Infanta, the ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, and offers to hire Jepp as a court dwarf, charged with entertaining the Infanta with dinnertime amusements.

Jepp soon discovers that Coudenberg Palace is a gilded cage, where he and his fellow dwarfs are kept in luxury but used for humiliating acts, such as bursting from a pie. Additionally, when Jepp discovers that Lia, a fellow dwarf whom he's fallen for, has been abused, he attempts to help her escape. When the attempt goes wrong, Jepp finds himself bundled away in a cage and sent to the far north.

Where he finds himself is even stranger than Coudenberg: Uraniborg, the castle of the eccentric Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe, where he finds himself employed as a jester and forced to share a room with a drunk moose. But Uraniborg is a refreshingly egalitarian place, and even a dwarf might be able to find a place amongst Brahe's cohort of scholars who are trying to measure the stars.

This book is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in the history of science, with its recreation of Tycho Brahe's scientific research that served as the base for Johannes Kepler's stellar theories. It's also very interesting for exploring the world of court dwarfs and other "curiosities," and how they were often simultaneously well-treated and viewed as something less than human.

The characters of Jepp and Magdalene (Tycho's daughter who befriends Jepp somewhat against his will) are both interesting and well-rounded, simultaneously sympathetic while occasionally reacting in a less-than helpful fashion to the situations around them. The characters associated with the court of the Infanta are also interesting, and Marsh often gives them morally complex motives for their actions even as they treat Jepp and fellow dwarfs poorly.

The only major "flaw" in the book is that it sometimes seems like three books in one, or one book that takes a significant detour into essentially another story. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing plot wise, it feels weird for the book to invest a lot of time in showing off Coudenberg in its first third only to jump to Uraniborg, before returning to Coudenberg for its last third.

Still, that is really only a minor oddness to the story. All in all, this is an interesting novel that explores some areas that the average reader might not have otherwise thought about. Any reader interested in historical fiction, the history of science, or how dwarfs have been treated would definitely be interested in checking this book out,

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