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The Sterkarm Handshake

by Susan Price

(Scholastic Point, 5.99, 464 pages, paperback, published 17 October 2003; ISBN: 0439978963.)

The Sterkarms live in the sixteenth century border country between England and Scotland and are mainly left handed, thus when they shake hands their dagger hand is free. That's why you should never trust the Sterkarm Handshake...

When men and women from the twenty first century use a time tunnel to travel back to the sixteenth century they expect they will have no trouble exploiting the primitive people they meet there. Posing as Elves they believe they have binding agreements with the Sterkarms, and if, as seems increasingly apparent, a Sterkarm handshake cannot be trusted then superior 21st technology will ensure the job is completed. Andrea Mitchell, an anthropologist working with the Sterkarms finds her loyalties increasingly divided as the Sixteenth Century people's constant minor treachery causes the partnership to fall apart...

I liked this book. Written with tremendous pace, it had me hooked from the opening pages; however, what really impressed was Price's trick of combining historical detail with well observed social comment without in anyway slowing down the story.

Price is not sentimental about either the Sterkarms or the twenty first century society that seeks to exploit them. She illustrates both their good and bad points without favour, but the real charm in this book is the way she gives real insight into our own society by contrasting it with that of the more primitive Sterkarms.

Andrea Mitchell is bullied by her boss because of her large frame, but what the twenty first century men call "Big and Fat" the Sterkarms call "Bonny" and she is granted greater respect by the Sixteenth Century men because of this. She is courted by the son of the leader of the clan, a young man still doted on by his parents. Price has a keen eye for the emotional details. Young Per was kissed and cuddled by his parents as a child, now as a grown up they see no reason to stop this, and the son often walks hand in hand with his father. Nonetheless, Price does not fall into the trap of sentiment. Despite being the obvious heroes of the book, the Sterkarms are nevertheless portrayed as the ignorant yobs they essentially are, willing to fight and kill over the theft of a sheep.

The action moves from the Sixteenth to the Twenty First century and back again: introducing a host of believable characters, and throughout all of this the plot rolls steadily along to its bitter sweet climax.

A thoughtful, well written book.

Thoroughly recommended.

Review by Tony Ballantyne.

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