Julie Hearn,
Sign of the Raven
(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

The Black Raven is just a quiet pub in London, near the house of Tom's grandmother. And Tom is just a 12-year-old boy who would like to be anywhere but his grandmother's house, doing anything except watching his mother try to recover from cancer and mend a years-long rift with her mother.

But within his grandmother's old house, Tom has an escape. There's a rift in time that lets him travel to the 18th century, to a strange street full of very strange people. The door to this past seems to be Astra, a girl born with dwarfism and suffering from slavery. Seeking escape from the troubles of his present, Tom is forced to grapple with the more monstrous wrongs of the past, in a time when the only familiar landmark is the sign of the raven.

Sign of the Raven is a book that should strain credibility, but Julie Hearn writes with a hypnotic conviction in both her history and her characters. Tom, his mother and even his distant grandmother are immediately real and even likeable people. Hearn's book risks evoking the same voyeuristic exploitation it condemns. Hearn avoids the problem by the simple expedient of making sure all her characters behave as people first, even when they don't think of themselves as such. From tiny, bitter Astra to the enthusiastic Bendy Man, Malachi Twist, the socially ostracized "monsters" who serve as attractions in the 18th century Bartholomew Fair are portrayed with sympathy but no sentiment.

Perhaps the true rarity in Sign of the Raven is Hearn's faith in her young readers. The effects of the time rift reach far beyond Tom's limited adventures with the freaks of Bartholomew Fair. Those larger stories are never spelled out; there's no moment of exposition where Tom puzzles out the whole thing or receives a history lesson from his mother or finds a book that reveals all the secrets of the past. Instead Hearn gives glimpses of these side stories, with just enough detail that readers can piece it all together if they choose.

Sign of the Raven has fine-tuned character development, historical depth and the rare, realistic optimism that's earned by surviving troubles rather than avoiding them. All of this, and a Gorilla Woman. It's better than a circus.

by Sarah Meador
18 February 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.