Book Review: Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin

Publisher: Corgi Children’s

Published: 2nd June 2011

Format: Paperback

Pages: 320

Genre: Historical, YA

Recommended Reading Age: 14+

Rating: 7/10

Amazon/Goodreads

‘Zarita is used to basking in the pampered lifestyle being the only daughter of the town magistrate affords; she is free to roam the town as she likes, consort with the son of a nobleman and spend her days studying the arts. Saulo’s family have fallen on hard times, and when his father is hanged for an assault on Zarita he did not commit and Saulo is hauled off to be a slave at sea, Saulo swears revenge. But when Zarita’s mother dies in childbirth, and the formidable and frightening Inquisition arrives in the area, a curtain of suspicion and brutality comes down on her old life for good. Saulo may believe that Zarita is his sworn enemy, but in a time when the whole of Spain is in turmoil, are him and Zarita each other’s only hope of survival?’

Prisoner of the Inquisition is good choice for those who enjoy historical fiction. It’s rich in detail and Breslin really captures the atmosphere of the time, the religion, the politics, the ins and outs of everyday life, as well as life at sea in the 1400’s. 

The story is told through two narratives, Zarita’s story in Spain with the Inquisition closing in and Saulo’s, sold as a galley rat aboard a ship as a consequence of Zarita’s actions. For the majority of the book, this duel narrative works quite well, with each story unique and engaging enough to make the switch backwards and forwards between the two less jarring then it otherwise could have been. It’s when these two narratives come together towards the end that it becomes tedious, as we start to have small, inconsequential scenes told twice over from each characters point of view (mostly how attractive they find the other and the idle chitchat between them). With nothing to really distinguish between them at this point, Prisoner of the Inquisition does start to become repetitive and sadly ends rather abruptly, sloppily and far too sweetly.

After finishing this book I almost felt like it was cut far, far, too short. I wanted to read about Saulo’s adventures at sea, discovering new worlds, and actually see him grow into a confident, successful young man, who has found his place in the world. In a short space of time it seems Saulo suddenly grows up and learns all about sailing and navigating but we don’t actually get to experience much of it. The same could be said of Zarita, but in her case I would have liked far more focus on the Inquisition, the terror and danger of living at such a time, and, more importantly, on her actual trial rather than a plot line involving her stepmother, who felt a little bit like a Disney villain. I would have loved for Breslin to really explore the horrors and injustice of the Inquisition and follow through on that excellent prologue.

It is within the last 90 pages where Prisoner of the Inquisition falls down. Once these two characters meet, we have a fairly bland, predictable, romance that is rushed and unnecessary. I had enjoyed following these two characters who, despite having never actually met, are strangely connected, their lives driven off course and hugely influenced by the other. Given their history, any relationship between them needed to be explored slowly and developed over time. It could have been a very interesting dynamic, but it is tagged onto the end of the novel and instead reads very much like a young person’s ideal of romance, i.e the dreaded ‘insta-love’. All very intense within an hour or two of meeting and based completely on looks alone.

What makes Prisoner of the Inquisition a compelling book is all the little tidbits of information about life in the 1400’s that are woven into the story. It has a strong sense of place and Breslin clearly knows her history. Prisoner of the Inquisition pays far more attention to historical detail than many of its YA counterparts with far less time spent on a clichéd, typical romance. However, I have to admit to finding the writing style a little dry in regards to the characters and dialogue. I felt distanced from them and couldn’t connect with anyone. Zarita’s story is set right bang in the middle of the Inquisition but I never felt any of the rising tension or fear that this should have brought to the story.

Breslin also has the tendency to spell everything out to the reader. We don’t need to be told the exact workings of Father Besian’s mind by Zarita’s Aunt (who, as a character, seems to exist mainly to explain all the other character’s feelings or actions), or why he focuses on Bartolome as an example – we can infer that for ourselves. Not only does this slow the story down, it is unnecessary and made Zarita look simple and foolish for not being able to grasp what was going on for herself without her Aunt to continually guide her.

I found Zarita spoilt, tiresome and naive and though we are literally told several times she has matured into a wise young woman, I never saw much evidence of this. I liked Saulo more, as a child and on board the ship. Although, his drive for revenge is non-existent for the majority of his story, only appearing again when it is convenient to the plot, and so wasn’t overly believable. Once he returns to Spain, his character rotates between hunting down and destroying the people he holds responsible for his parents death and following around Zarita, neither of which corresponds with the intelligent, curious child whose story we we have been followed previously.

However (and rather unusually), I didn’t find my general indifference towards the characters affected how much I enjoyed this book. It was the historical setting, the detail of the period, and the character’s individual journeys that held my interest rather than a desire to see these two protagonists together. Despite some flaws, Prisoner of the Inquisition is, on the whole a well, a written novel and an interesting read. Breslin has written a strong story that admittedly fell down a little at the last hurdle for me, but I think many younger readers will enjoy the romantic element towards the end of the book and for those who aren’t so keen on romance, but love a period book, this is still a great choice. I would certainly be interested in trying out some of Breslin’s other work in the future.

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