The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price is an extraordinarily detailed historical-modern science fiction novel in which members of a team of researchers from the 21st century travel through a time tube into the lives of the Sterkarm clan in 16th-century England.
At first the narrative concerns itself with the creation of a realistic and believable portrayal of the living conditions and the relationships of a tough, violent group of people whose feelings for each other are not that dissimilar from those of human being living 500 years later. As the novel progresses the relations between the 20th-century individuals and the Sterkarms simultaneously deteriorate and deepen. Incidents pile one upon the other, the sense of conflict increases and the action becomes both increasingly violent and increasingly complicated. External action is balanced by the development of internal feelings and one of the modern team, a young girl named Andrea, falls deeply in love with a young Sterkarmer. This is a novel for Sci-Fi bookworms with a love of history, a touch of romance and masses of action.
--Tamsin Palmer (Ages 10 and over)
To the 16th-century Border rievers the Sterkarms, the magic gifts of the 'Elves' promise ease and prosperity. Andrea Mitchell, fat and clumsy at home in the 21st century but feted as a beauty here and in love with the chief's son, has never known such happiness. But a modern business venture and a carefree robber clan with no loyalty except to each other, bowing to no law but their own are not suitable business partners. Neither has any idea of dealing in good faith and soon enough blood is spilt and a murderous feud begins. Poor Andrea, who knows nothing about men or fighting or clan loyalty, who wants nothing but peace and love, knows she must bring them together or be forced to choose between them. And in a man's world, who will listen to a woman?
Not since John Wyndham has character been combined with science fiction like this. Andrea's besotted naivete is beautifully drawn and the 16th century with all its blood, cruelty and dirt is vividly realised. Self-evidently the author knows what she is writing about and how to make us feel it. She understands these clans, how strangers live on sufferance, how an enemy's head is a suitable trophy and how a man can be sweet, loving and kind to his girl and carve the ears off his enemies with the same joy. This is a book not just to read but to live in. Poignant as the ending is, it is not half as bad as having to stop reading. Why this fantastic book has been published under a children's imprint is a mystery to me.
Price's make-believe invention, the vital part of a secret international project to colonise and exploit the past, is the Time Tube... While the Tube is in use, one half of it remains in the high tech surroundings of the 'the 21st'. The travelling end is seen to disappear into thin air and to operate in a different dimension of time, 'the 16th.' Passengers emerge on the wild tussocky hillside of the 'debateable land' of the Borders, the home of feuding families,, reivers, the Sterkarms.
Proud and vindictive, they hold their land, Man's-Home, by fighting for it against all comers. Their mood and moves swither according to what they regard as a threat. No handshake binds them. They do not wonder at the Tube but see it as the work of strangers from Elf-Land. Elves are welcome as guests bringing 'wee white pills' which soothe arthritis. As invaders they are resisted to the utmost.
In this reversal of folk-tale visitations (Tam Lin, True Thomas and others) the Sterkarms sodden, smelly communal life in a tower amongst sheep and heather is the author's stunning imaginative creation, fed and renewed, as is much of her earlier work, by the dark side of ballads and tales older than writing. In response to teh detailed clarity of the descriptions, readers are bound to set aside any conception of Sterkarms as uncivilised robbers, the view held by Windsor, the boss of the Tube, and reach back to stylistic features of even older legendary heroes, or the stuff of Beowulf. For Price, the war of her two worlds is the age-old rivalry of nature and science.
The contrasts and conflicts between the ancients and moderns are skilfully limned in the character of Andrea, the energetic, buxom go-between anthropologist employed to report to the entrepreneurs on the nature and culture of the Sterkarms. Sympathetic, intuitive and an understanding observer, she is safe as a guest and the prospective bride of the only son of the family chief and his implacable, fearsome wife. She speaks the local language and knows the difficulty of conducting negotiations between two groups of people with irreconcilable notions of reality and human engagement: hand-to-hand fighting and kissing are normal for the Sterkarms.
When Per, the handsome, impetuous heir, Andrea's friend and lover, is badly wounded in a raid, she organises his removal by Tube to recovery in a 21st hospital. Because Per knows that to eat the food of Elf-Land is to remain forever in thrall, he discharges himself. In a ring-road subway he meets another, modern, Sterkarm, homeless Joe, who is glad to leave his cardboard box to serve Per as his liegeman. Per's experience of the actualities of the 21st is one of the most expertly realised episodes in a story where attacks and blood-letting come straight from their atavistic sources.
When it comes, the inevitable encounter is relentless and prolonged. The men of the 21st plan to shock the Sterkarms into compliance. The Sterkarms plan an ambush to dispatch the Elves and nearly succeed, but losing Per, bound and gagged, to the outsiders, they are bound to follow when he is again taken to Elf-Land. Once there, the Sterkarms gight their way back, laying waste the installations of the Tube headquarters. Per goes back to Man's Home, as does Joe. Andrea stays in the 21st but is not ever fully at home. Where, now, are the readers' sympathies, so strenuously recruited throughout on the side of 'uncivilised'?
Science now offers writers an extended range of fictive ways of coding human values and behaviour. The Time Tube device works well enough, adding suspense. But it is the power of the storytelling, raised here to new heights by an expert, that encourages young readers, and others, to consider what they believe is of most worth.
Review by 'MMe'