The Sterkarm Handshake

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The Sterkarm Handshake
by Susan Price
written for ages 13-16 | not recommended
published in 2000 (1998) | HarperCollins | 448 pages

The Time Tube allows people from the 21st century to travel to the 16th to negotiate deals which will bring now unknown produce from an unpolluted world. However, the people running the show in the 21st seriously underestimate the peoples of the 16th. Only Andrea, a researcher living and working among them, understands how they think. She is influenced by her love for Per, son of a Sterkarm clan leader.

This book just stops short of being a military thriller, with slightly gory - almost voyeuristic - descriptions of unsuspecting men about to be killed in more-or-less pleasant ways. What it does do well, is to provide a searching look at the modern attitude to the people who previously lived where we now do. The medieval Scots are simple but neither naive nor unintelligent; they are emotional and sentimental but not a soft touch; they stick fast to what they see as the demands of their society when it comes to hospitality but are unafraid of turning that hospitality into an ambush; they are brutal and primitive but not without their own culture.

When confronted with the modern world, the peoples of the 16th see it as a magical elf-land of wonders. When the peoples of the 21st travel back to the 16th, they see it as fresh and clean. Yet this is no romantic plaint for some former way of life. Through Andrea's eyes, who lives among the primitive tribesmen of the 16th century, we see how little their morality matches ours: theft is only when things are taken from you; when you take from others, that is only right. The Sterkarm Handshake refers to the fact that the Sterkarms were generally left-handed, so could shake with their right, inducing trust, but still cut you down with a weapon. There is a general undercurrent of brutality in the dealings of the 16th-C Scots, including mention of how often they would womanise and how readily they would kill.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer linving in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | historical fiction, science fiction

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