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HFC Editorial Review for "Airy Nothing" by Clarissa Pattern

Book Blurb and Editorial Review:

When you’ve always been told you’re wrong, finding a place that accepts you can be the most magical thing in the world. John has always seen things others could not see. He runs away to fabled London to find his fortune, but all he finds are grimy streets, rife with hangings and disease. Black Jack is a fast-talking pickpocket ready to show John a new life in the big city. When John first sees Shakespeare’s wondrous Globe theatre, he becomes convinced that this is where he truly belongs. But can Black Jack resist the urge to make some easy coin off of his new, naïve friend? And can John step up to the stage before the beast of the city swallows them both? AIRY NOTHING is a magical period tale of two boys finding friendship, love, and acceptance in seething Elizabethan London.

John ran, his feet thumping on the uneven ground. His lungs heaved against the tightness of his bodice, and his skirts clawed at his calves, clinging to the flesh of his thighs. When he stumbled, the hobgoblin bobbed around him, pulling at his clothes so they didn’t trip him and steadying his shoulder with its small, powerful hands, but there was only so much a house sprite could do. And an almost infinite list of things it couldn’t.”

From the outset, you are swept off your feet as John, a young boy in a dress with long blond hair and soulful eyes, hides in the bushes to escape the ‘monsters’ on horseback. His dream unfurls as you, the reader, are sucked into John’s world of imagination – of twirling hobgoblins and fanciful faeries – and his desire to find his place in the mad smelly rat-infested hovel of sixteenth century London. But John’s problem is one he cannot escape, and is the reason he ran away from home, that being his small size and fair face – a trait his father, his “Da” could not abide.

And all the while, on his journey to and through London, you learn of his secrets, of the guilt and grief he tucks deep inside his heart, and the desperation he has for acceptance in a world where men displayed the size of their codpieces, fought in the streets with swords, and spouted their nightly conquests while downing their ale. Boys like John are quickly trodden underfoot, but soon after his initial disillusionment with the sights and smells of London (for he is sure that the Faerie Queene would never live in such a vile place), he is befriended by a wily street-wise pickpocket known as Black Jack, a tall redhead who mistakes John for a girl and takes him under his wing.

In true Dicken’s fashion, John and Black Jack echo the survival techniques employed by Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger, but in true Shakespearean style, Ms Pattern immerses the reader in a rich and glorious prose worthy of the Bard himself. And for a while, you aren’t quite sure of Jack’s intentions with John as his entire life is centred on grifting... even thinking for a time of using John to put some coin in his pocket.

A notation here before going on – Ms Pattern’s descriptions of the London streets during this time period are nothing short of brilliant – incredibly descriptive and believable, so much so that you can smell the rotting fish heads and the acidic urine-filled mud along the Thames. In contrast, just as vivid are the fantastical images of John’s visions and dreams – your mind is filled with a plethora of swirls, smells, and creatures!

As John got closer, he saw that there was no bellowing beast, only a vast, wounded animal broken up into individual men, women, and children, dirty and reeking, with shabby clothes. All of them stank, the younger ones like wet straw, the adults sour and sickly. Some of them carried baskets on their backs, overflowing with wood, linen, fruit and herbs, which John could see were squashed beyond usefulness. Nevertheless, he sidled closer to a woman burdened with leaves, hoping that their aroma might mask some of the human stench. The mints were bruised and torn, all their refreshing properties lost to the wind. But their was marjoram too – a symbol of love and happiness ahead. No one looked at him or spoke to him, not even the people near enough to touch. It felt lonely, but it also meant there was nothing about him to make people stare. He was just one more limb of the injured creature limping through the city gates.

John is a character befitting so many of Shakespeare’s creations. He is Puck, Ariel, Juliet, and Viola all rolled into one, and the clever way Ms Pattern used quotes from Shakespeare to head each chapter is a beautiful nod to the thread running through the book, that of Sebastian and Viola’s story from Twelfth Night – the separation of a brother and sister which resonates in John’s own life.

While under Black Jack’s tutelage, John discovers his true calling while visiting the Bankside theatre of the Globe, and after a few magical tricks from his hobgoblin he finds himself as apprentice to Edward Shakespeare, brother to the Bard. And with his slight size and girlish looks, he fits right in among the troupe of players, and comes into his own playing the female roles of Shakespeare’s plays. Ms Pattern even gives us the reality of the pit of groundlings standing before the stage – the sweat, the pressing of bodies – all fixated on the entertainment before them.

The room smelt of ink and old parchment and blood and dreams and butterfly wings and red thornless roses in winter.

Following more into the story, all is not well with Black Jack, his one true friend, and after an almost disastrous evening of thieving, and after John’s first experience with witnessing the horrors of hangings at Tilbury, both boys find themselves on the angry side of a man known as the Butcher.

Their growing attachment to one another is put to the test as the only way for John to survive is for Jack to sacrifice their friendship. John’s fame on the stage grows, and Jack disappears. Until... well, no spoilers here!! Read the book!!

Airy Nothing is a rare book, indeed. Magical and airy, delightful and intriguing, a tribute work to Shakespeare and an exceptional work of art by this talented author. For those of you who know me, I am a huge Shakespearean fan, so I can say without hesitation that I bow to the author’s skill and craft in weaving his words and essence into this body of work. I could not put it down and absorbed every word until the very end... and even afterwards, they linger in my mind, flitting around like that cartwheeling faery nudging me with a smile and wink.

This is a unique gift of historical and fantasy melded together in perfection, and while at times you have to take a moment to gauge what is going on (sort of like Puck racing through a midsummer dream), this book by no means disappoints in any way. To me, this was more about the connections of friendship, of sacrifice and acceptance, than any sort of romantic attachment. I think the author implied it but that never came across, which was fine with me since John and Jack’s friendship reached a level of more believable emotion than anything else.

But then there was a faint breeze and it all blew away into tinier and tinier fragments, particles of dust – each a world itself. And he realised deep in his soul that everything he though he knew was, in the end, just airy nothings.

Surreality and reality in perfect balance. John hovers between worlds, between being a boy with girl features, and a gentle soul in a very harsh landscape and life. I also loved the fact that the author uses the hobgoblin as comic relief, again a lovely nod to Shakespeare who used the same technique in his developing different characters. So many times I found myself laughing out loud or a smile breaking across my face.

The contrasts represented in this book are incredibly striking and so often reveal in subtle ways, in symbolic ways, the same as Shakespeare’s plays, such as the contrast between John watching a play from the penny pit to his performing on the stage and watching the groundlings before him. His quest for the Faery Queene, his imaginary world, leading him to the real world of the Globe Theatre and the real gifted playwright (blessed by a muse and followed by a blue faery). His soft nature against the starkness of Jack’s demeanour and upbringing.

There is no doubt in my mind in giving this book Five Stars and a “Highly Recommended” award from The Historical Fiction Company.

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Book Award: "Highly Recommended" 5-star Book Award


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