I have been a fan of both Elizabeth Bear’s and Katherine Addison’s / Sara Monette’s individual works for a long time, and also loved the Fantasy trilogy they have written together, so of course when I read they had collaborated on another novel, getting that was a no-brainer.
The Cobbler’s Boy is different from both Bear’s and Addison’s previous books in that it contains no fantastical elements at all, but instead is a historical mystery; set in the Elizabethan age and with a young Christopher Marlowe as its protagonist, the novel is pitched by the authors as “Kit Marlowe, Boy Detective” and this indeed sums it up very nicely.
Fifteen-year old Christopher Marlowe is living with his parents and his four sisters in Canterbury, and is unsure what to do with his life. He just left another apprenticeship and really feels drawn towards a scholarly vocation but does not have the means to pursue it and may be forced to apprentice with his father. A prospect he dreads, not just because he feels unfit for the profession but also because John Marlowe is a drunkard and violent man who regularly beats both his wife and his son. In addition to that, Kit finds himself developing romantic feelings for his best friend Ginger who happens to be male, making their burgeoning love very much forbidden and dangerous to both of them. And in this highly insecure personal situation, someone is murdered, a man is murdered, a man who had befriended Kit and entrusted a mysterious package to him just before his death, and John Marlowe is arrested for the crime. Everyone, including his own wife, seems to think that Kit’s father is indeed guilty of the crime, so what is a boy to do but to start investigating on his own…
The Cobbler’s Boy is not as deep as the Iskryne trilogy, Bear/Addison’s previous collaboration, and appears to be happy to just chug along the well-trodden paths of genre conventions rather than subverting them as their Fantasy trilogy did. But it does this with so much gusto and and such obvious relish that it easily makes up for this lack of depth with its narrative enthusiasm and by being a damnably fun read. I strongly suspect that both authors were enjoying themselves rather a lot while writing The Cobbler’s Boy, and that joy transmits to the reader. It probably helps that it is a short novel, just under 200 pages – and those pages just flew by, the last coming far sooner than I would have liked, and like most, of not all, readers I am very much hoping for a sequel.
One aspect where its shortness is working somewhat against the novel, however, is that the cast of secondary characters is not very fleshed out. Bear and Addison are far too good writers to give us anything like cardboard-cutouts and their characters are very convincing, but they do confine to sketching them with a few strokes where a fully-realised portrait would have been welcome.
Another minor niggle might be that the central mystery is not really much of one – there really is only a single suspect for the murder, and quite unsurprisingly it turns out that he is the one who committed it. On first sight, that might even appear as a major flaw, but it isn’t really – for the reason that, while it does follow the general outlines of the genre, The Cobbler’s Boy is not really a mystery novel. It is much closer to an adventure novel and indeed the work it reminded most of was Robert Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Admittedly, there (sadly) are no pirates here, and no exotic locales; the novel stays in Canterbury for the whole of its narrative (although, I suppose that, with Bear and Addison both being USians, an English cathedral town might appear as something of an exotic location to them), but it has just the same boyish exuberance, the sense of excitement and adventure that I loved in Stevenson’s novel.
In spite of not having a villain of Long John Silver`s calibre (not to mention its deplorable lack of pirates), The Cobbler’s Boy manages to magnificently capture the spirit of a classic boy’s adventure tale (and does spice it up with some not-quite-so-classic male/male romance), making it an immensely gleeful and utterly squee-worthy read. And I really, really hope that Bear and Addison will return to “Kit Marlowe, Boy Detective” (and maybe even add some pirates next time).