The Sterkarm Handshake: Dense, immensely complicated

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Susan Price The Sterkarm HandshakeThe Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price

In the 21st century an invention has finally been perfected: The Time Tube, which allows contemporary scientists, researches and corporate moneymakers to travel back into the 16th century and mingle with the locals there. Think of the possibilities! Plentiful supplies of oil, gold and coal, an extraordinary opportunity to study ancient life, and a pollution-free resort for those wealthy enough to make the trip. The corporation FUP has already purchased the troublesome borderlands between 16th century Scotland and England in order to begin development.

But there’s just one problem: the Sterkarms. This warrior tribe are those that lay claim to the land, and have a reputation that has gained themselves the saying: “Never shake hands with a Sterkarm.” Since all the Sterkarms are left-handed, it is easy for them to conceal a dagger in their right hands whilst shaking with their left, and as such are utterly untrustworthy. They consider the 21st century people to be the “Elves” from their folklore, yet despite negotiations and bribes of the Elves “wee white pills” (that is, aspirin), the Sterkarms have no real interest in giving up their lands and way of life in order for the Elves to move in — in fact, their raids upon survey teams have begun to be a nuisance to the 21st-siders.

Andrea Mitchell is a young field-researcher, caught directly between the two sides. On the one hand is the needs/wants of her own world, and the demands of her superior Windsor who holds her career in the palm of her hand. On the other is the Sterkarms who have welcomed her into their lives like a guest and whom she has come to greatly respect and admire. On top of this she has developed feelings for the chieftain’s son Per, and he for her, which makes her mediating role a lot more complicated.

Susan Price presents a wonderfully thought-provoking novel that deals with the inevitable discord between two opposing cultures when one wants something from the other. She is (thankfully) very gifted in presenting a case for both sides of the argument and paints rather a lot of grey within the situation. The Sterkarms are not presented as tree-hugging, circle-dancing New-Agers like many books that deal with such people do, but instead as warm, affectionate loving people who nevertheless engage in warfare, torture, bloodlust and selective memory whenever it suits them. On the other end of the scale is Windsor, who looks upon Sterkarms as “overgrown, rather dim and naughty children.” This is to his own detriment considering the Sterkarms are more than capable of beheading him and displaying his head should it ever suit them. Both sides are so vividly portrayed that I felt myself switching alliances whenever the narrative moved: when the 21st century thugs were called in to exterminate the Sterkarms I hoped the Sterkarms would give them what was coming to them, but when the self-same men attempted an escape in the night, I was terrified for them that the Sterkarms would discover them.

As the story begins, the Sterkarms ride out to retrieve stolen sheep from an enemy tribe rather than allow the 21st-siders to take care of it, and end up returning with a severely injured Per. A distraught Andrea and a conniving Windsor take him through the Tube and into the future, with Windsor plotting to use the beloved son as a hostage for the chieftain Toorkild’s good behaviour. From there the crisis escalates as the two sides declare war on each other, with both sides severely underestimating the other, and Andrea caught once more in the middle: should she help the men that the Sterkarms hold captive, knowing that they had come into the past to slaughter them all? Or should she side with the Sterkarms knowing that their way of life might be obliterated with the greed of Windsor and his corporation? And finally comes the ultimate decision: to stay with her love Per in a world of drudgery and peril, or to give him up and stay in the drab and somewhat meaningless world of the 21st century.

The Sterkarm Handshake is a dense, immensely complicated book in its themes of intolerance, misunderstanding and inability to communicate: perhaps the main causes of all bloodshed in invasions and colonisation in our history books. Ultimately of course, the conclusion is somewhat melancholy; given that no real solution exists either in the book or in the real world to reconcile such different groups that live in such radically different ways. Price brings these differences to light wonderfully, what with Per’s experiences in “Elfland” and Windsor’s growing realisation that the Sterkarms cannot be controlled so easily.

Furthermore, the use of the 21st century people as “Elves” is great to read if you are familiar with the folklore surrounding such beings, and the Sterkarm’s interpretation of Andrea and the other’s behaviour in terms of their limited knowledge. In fact, all of the Sterkarm’s way of life is meticulously presented and realistic. The Sterkarm Handshake is a heavy read, but a rewarding one, and suitable for either gender above the age of ten, with enough ambiguity to keep one thinking for a very long time. Time-traveling stories usually leave me cross-eyed, but since the Time Tube actually takes our contemporaries to another dimension, as well as another time, then there are no difficulties in trying to puzzle out the ramifications of such a visitation — ie, Andrea doesn’t end up being her own great-great-something-grandmother, or other such confusing elements.

Sterkarm — (1998—2003) Young adult. According to Susan Price’s website, a third volume is expected. Publisher: “Beware of shaking hands with a Sterkarm.” For generations, the Sterkarms plundered the Scottish border. They were known for shaking on a bargain with a dagger clutched firmly in one hand — and for not keeping their promises. Now people from the 21st century have found a way to travel to the Sterkarms’ time. The 16th century is rich in natural resources and historical detail, perfect for the modern investor or scholar. Anthropologist Andrea Mitchell finds more than research there, as she falls in love with a young Sterkarm warrior. But when he realizes how powerful and destructive the visitors truly are, he vows to keep them from his land forever. And in the bloody battle that ensues, Andrea must choose between her love and her world.

Susan Price review The Sterkarm Handshake; A Sterkarm KissSusan Price review The Sterkarm Handshake; A Sterkarm Kiss


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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