A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Changeling is the first young adult novel by best-selling historical romance author Phillipa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl). There are many references to Catholicism and the sacred vows observed by priests, nuns, and other religious officials. Because it takes place in the 15th century, much is made about the limited roles for women. There's some violence (characters are burned, poisoned, tortured, and nearly killed by a mob), but most of it stops just shy of an actual death. Sexuality is limited to mentions of impropriety and an affair and several longing looks between characters who are forbidden to act on their desires. A young man flirts with several women, and a young priest accidentally sees (from afar) two beautiful women taking a bath. Teens will have plenty to discuss, particularly about gender politics.
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What's the story?
It's 1453 Italy, and gorgeous 17-year-old novitiate Luca Vero is accused of heresy for using logic. As punishment for his crime, Luca (who is rumored to be a changeling because he's so much cleverer and more beautiful than his thought-to-be barren parents) must join a secret order to investigate possible demonic activity across the papal realm. Along with his faithful and funny squire, Frieze, and a by-the-book clerk, Vero goes to an abbey where strange things are happening. The abbess turns out to be the lovely, grieving Isolde, who only agreed to be named head of the nunnery because the abbey sits on her family's property -- land she thought she would inherit upon her father's death. While exploring the seemingly possessed behavior of the abbey's nuns, Luca begins to wonder whether Isolde and her non-believer attendant, Ishraq, are actually witches, as one of the other nuns suggests.
Is it any good?
Unlike Philippa Gregory's thick tomes for adults, Changeling feels light -- too light. Best known for her sweeping historical romances The Other Boleyn Girl and The Red Queen, Gregory tries her hand at the young adult genre here. As in her other novels, there's plenty of intrigue, many class issues, and the beginnings of an epic romance here. Despite the many (often heavy) religious references -- mostly to Catholicism but also to Islam -- teens will be able to follow Gregory's flowing plot thanks to her progressive characters.
But teenagers are more than capable of reading 300-plus pages (just ask J.K. Rowling's fans); this one could have gone on longer but instead offers an abrupt ending. Isolde and Luca might be the main protagonists, but as is often the case, it's the two sidekicks, Frieze and Ishraq, who are more interesting (and get the best lines). Ishraq is more likely to pull a sword on a man than flirt with him, and Frieze is an amusing combination of verbose bravado and quiet tenderness (especially toward animals). Luca, although clearly handsome and brilliant, is almost unlikable at times, and it's a shame that Gregory didn't further explore the titular idea that he's indeed of fairy blood. Still, this is a fascinating page-turner, leaving readers hopeful for a heftier second installment.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how, in the 15th century, gender, class, and religion determined people's abililty to make their own choices. How are all the main characters bound by the status society imposes on them?
How is religion portrayed in Changeling? Which characters seem to have a positive, life-affirming relationship with their faith, and which ones are just pretending?
Is the changeling/supernatural backstory necessary, or would the story have worked just as well without it? Why are supernatural stories so popular in the young adult genre?
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