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Stormbringers by Philippa Gregory

Luca Vero is a member of the secret Order of Darkness, tasked with searching out and reporting signs of the end of the world. Breaking his journey in Piccolo, he finds a place filled with superstitious fears: of the unknown, of the forces of the sea and sky, of strangers.

With him are his loyal friend and servant, Frieze, and his clerk, Brother Peter, as well as the Lady Isolde and her mysterious servant-companion Ishraq. The five of them are followed into the town by a huge children’s crusade, led by a self-proclaimed saint. Its young leader promises that the sea will part before them, and allow them to walk dry-shod all the way to Jerusalem.

Luca and Lady Isolde are swept up in the growing excitement; but something dangerous is brewing far out to sea…

Stormbringers continues the journey of Brothers Luca and Peter as they investigate mysterious events occurring all around Europe for the Pope, in the hopes of discovering if the end of the world is nigh. Travelling with them are Lady Isolde and her companion Ishraq. I think Philippa Gregory has delivered an admirable sequel to Changeling, building upon the foundation she laid in the previous book and progressing the characters deeper into the mysteries of the time they live in.

I love that the characters grow so much throughout this book – especially Ishraq and Frieze. The more these five spend time with one another, the more they learn about each other and the more their own personal views and prejudices are challenged. In Stormbringers, the foundation is laid for Ishraq’s impending crisis of identity as a Muslim maid to a Christian Lady in the time of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the threat they pose to Christendom. I think the tension between them is cleverly woven, and would love to see how it pans out in later novels. Another interesting development is Luca’s uncertainty about his future, and especially in relation to his love life. I think the revelations at the end f this book will play a large role in the dynamics of the little group as time goes on.

All this character development doesn’t impact the exciting plot of Stormbringers. All the action is set in a tiny coastal town, and there are prophets, natural disasters, witch trials and a captain of a slaver-ship to keep readers entertained. The book feels a lot longer than its 300 pages, but I never found it lagging or boring.

However, this book isn’t really about the prophets, natural disasters or witch trials, it’s about the impact of these events on the devout Christian population of the time. It focuses on the way these people, lacking the scientific knowledge we have now, turn to portents and magic to explain the things around them. Stormbringers cleverly uses Ishraq to examine a woman’s place in society, to challenge the prevailing idea (then and today) that a woman should behave like a man expects and wishes her to, that her honour is bound to what men think of her. The book also looks at the religious conviction of Brother Peter, pitted against Luca’s uncertainty, and the way that horrible things can be done in the name of religion. Again, it is Ishraq, as the heretic in the party, who questions and challenges these things. In some ways, it feels like the plot hangs on her character – she’s often the voice of reason, with modern ideas of religious freedom and gender equality.

There are a few things I didn’t like about the novel. The first is that, although it is an exciting book, the overall plot progression is basically nonexistent. It’s obvious that the Order of Darkness series is going to be long. The second is the author’s ignorance on the Islamic religion and Middle Eastern culture. Although forgivable in her sheltered Christian protagonists who are prone to superstition and look for all their answers in the Bible – it’s unacceptable in the few Muslim characters we meet. They use phrases like Insha Allah incorrectly, at completely the wrong time, and seem to be shallowly versed in their own religion.

Stormbringers continues the tradition of Philippa Gregory novels of being vividly crafted and well executed, and although it is written for a young adult audience, doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable sociopolitical climate of the time. All the best, trademark aspects of Gregory’s writing have been translated into this YA novel, and I look forward to continuing Luca and Isolde’s journey in the coming sequels.

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