Susan Price,
The Sterkarm Handshake
(Scholastic, 1998;
HarperCollins, 2000)

Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake is a time-travel fantasy where the 21st century meets the 16th in an ultimately explosive clash of perceptions and expectations.

A 21st-century private corporation captures the secret of time travel and sets plans into motion to mine the past for its natural resources and exploit it for tourism. Since the furthest back they can go is the 16th century -- conveniently in another dimension so that history won't be changed -- they also have to deal with the Sterkarms, the clan occupying the region, a nebulous territory between England and Scotland.

Representatives from the corporation play the part of Elves bringing gold, miraculous white pills (aspirin) and promises which seem to bode well for their mission. But the Elves seriously underestimate the Sterkarms, not to mention ignore the warning "Beware of shaking hands with a Sterkarm," which generally means that it is foolhardy -- not to mention suicidal -- to take a Sterkarm at his word.

One of the Elves, Andrea Mitchell, is an anthropologist who lives with and studies the Sterkarms, ostensibly to glean what she can and facilitate negotiations. Andrea, however, has gotten a little deeper into her work than she intended -- Per, son of the head of the extended family with whom she lives, is her lover.

When Per is gravely wounded in a raid on the Grannams, another clan in the area, Andrea brings him to the 21st century. His life is saved, but the power of the Elves is too much for him. When he understands that he is to be held there, he takes drastic action, first to escape, then to make sure that the Elves never bother his people again.

Andrea is caught in the middle, knowing that both sides are terribly wrong -- just not about the same things. She also knows that unless they can communicate, it's going to get bloody.

This complex, tightly constructed novel moves at a breathtaking pace, particularly when it approaches the climactic confrontation. The chapters shift from the 16th century to the 21st century and back again, and the reader sees both sides develop their plans. While it seems as if the sympathy cards are stacked on the side of the Sterkarms, it slowly becomes clear that perhaps the reader may be underestimating the Sterkarms as well.

Price's characterizations are unflinchingly and refreshingly honest. Each character is delicately and often humanly contradictory. Andrea's recognition that she has conflicting obligations and loyalties to both sides is a startling character stroke; she realizes that she's not a character in one of Per's mother's stories and she knows it. Interesting personality shifts occur with a few characters, often revealing more than perhaps the reader wants to know.

For a dramatic, compelling and engrossing read, reach out for The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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