When I was a kid, I hated books set in historical times. They were so obviously history lessons with a story grafted on, and the story was usually pretty corny or unbelievable too.
Not so Gary Blackwood's trilogy about Widge, the orphan who ends up working for William Shakespeare's acting company. This is no history lesson--although the books are so full of interesting details that I probably learned a lot without realizing it--and they are excellent stories.
In the first book, The Shakespeare Stealer, Widge is apprenticed to Dr. Bright, who teaches him a form of shorthand he calls charactery. Dr. Bright wants Widge to copy sermons from neighboring churches so that he, Dr. Bright, can pass them off as his own. But then a mysterious man who calls himself Falconer offers Dr. Bright an astounding amount of money for Widge. Widge is dragged from his home in Yorkshire to London, where is told to copy Shakespeare's new play Hamlet. Or else.
It's a rolicking adventure, tightly plotted and fast-paced. The two sequels, Shakespeare's Scribe and Shakespeare's Spy, are just as good. In Shakespeare's Scribe, Widge accompanies Shakespeare's acting troupe as they tour outside of London during the height of the summer plague season. In Shakespeare's Spy, someone is stealing from the company and Widge ends up investigating.
Widge is a thoroughly likable character. He lives by his wits but he isn't snarky or spunky or sly (kind of a nice change from so many YA books). He's kind to people because he likes them; he worries when he thinks he's let someone down. He's also struggling with his own journey in life: who he is, who his parents were, what he wants from his future. While the books are funny and adventurous, they realities of life in Elizabethan times give them extra depth. Some of Widge's friends die; others are forced by circumstances to leave the theater or even the country.
Blackwood is such an assured storyteller that nothing seems contrived or false. He weaves historical details into the stories deftly, and makes us care about even minor characters. The third book's ending is a little drawn out, but I didn't mind since Blackwood was tying up loose ends.
The books are full of action--if I tried to list the subplots to even one book, this review would be twice as long--and extremely readable. It looks like the trilogy is available in one volume, incidentally. I've linked to it below. And I'm now off to see what else Gary Blackwood has written.