"I will tell you . . . a story of magic and love, of daring and death, and one to comfort your heart. It will be the truest story I have ever told. Now listen, and tell me if it is not so."
Keturah Reeve is a beautiful young woman of sixteen who lives with her grandmother in a cottage near the forest owned by Lord Temsland. Keturah is renowned in the village for her captivating storytelling, and this beautifully woven novel is a response to a request from Keturah's eager audience for yet another of her fascinating tales. She tells of her experience of being lost in the forest, her eventual meeting with a dark figure on horseback who is Lord Death and her bargaining with him for her life-and for the lives of the villagers who are threatened by an onset of the plague.
With its richly textured medieval setting, Keturah's story exposes the tensions and desires of the villagers, the dangers that loom in their future and how they place Keturah's life in jeopardy. Keturah's escalating bargains with Lord Death allow her to protect her friends and reveal to them their true talents and destinies. But even as she negotiates with Death, she becomes more isolated from the people she is seeking to protect and seems less and less likely to achieve the dreams of her own heart.
The startling resolution of the novel confirms Martine Leavitt's reputation as a treasure of a writer, a storyteller who can weave magnificent spells. Leavitt confronts readers with issues and revelations that, while they occur in a setting far from their own experience, bear the intimacy of next door.
More than any other resident of her village of Tide-by-Rood, Keturah Reeve has walked with Death her whole life. Given life with her mother's final breaths, Keturah subsequently loses her father and beloved grandfather to the inexorable pull of Death, but not before she learns what it is she wants most in life -- to be well and truly loved. One day Keturah makes the fateful decision to follow a legendary and elusive hart deep into the woods, where, after wandering and lost for three days she reaches the brink of death and meets its fearsome lord. But unwilling to relinquish her dreams of love Keturah refuses to go quietly with the handsome Lord Death and strikes a daring bargain -- she spins a tale of a love so true it would conquer death, but refuses to reveal the story's conclusion until the following evening. Lord Death, much taken with Keturah's beauty and spirit, agrees to this most unconventional arrangement. And so begins Keturah's delicate dance with Death as she strives to save her village from the threat of plague and realize the dreams of her heart -- but will her desire for true love blind her to its very presence?
Keturah and Lord Death is a richly compelling, darkly seductive fairy tale, at once both comfortingly familiar and hauntingly original, this is a tale that will remain with you long after you finish the final pages. With a poetic, lyrical style reminscent of Robin McKinley's fairy tale retellings, Leavitt spins the brave Keturah's story, recalling hints of Persephone and Scheherezade legends. Similar to Hades's power in the Persephone tale or the volatile King who holds Scheherezade's future in his hands, Lord Death is all-powerful, the great equalizer before whom both peasant and prince will one day bow alike. Like many of my favorite literary romances, an unlikely heroine unexpectedly discovers she holds the key to a seemingly untouchable man's heart. What makes this novel so compelling is the truly all-powerful nature of man Keturah faces, and the decision she must make when she quite unexpectedly discovers that she's become the object of Lord Death's desire. When Keturah's relationship with the most feared and loathed entity of all comes to light, she's faced with a choice and must decide if the cost of following her own heart's call is worth the risk of estrangement from the only life she's ever known.
In addition to the deliciously atypical romance, the greatest strength of this novel lies in its setting and colorful cast of supporting characters. Leavitt doesn't burden readers with an overabundance of historical fact, instead briefly touching on the superstitions and lifestyle of the Middle Ages time period -- just enough to ground her story while allowing it to retain its glorious fairy tale feel. And I adored Keturah's two best friends, the songbird Beatrice and seamstress Gretta and how Keturah proves instrumental in helping them attain their own happy endings. I particularly loved Gretta's romance with the gentle tailor and how his children were instrumental in bringing the couple together. It is wonderful to see such a network of sweetly supportive, self-sacrificing friendship in young adult literature of this type, and equally heart-rending to witness Keturah's growing realization that as she becomes the woman she's meant to be, her relationships must undergo irrevocable change.
Keturah and Lord Death was a delightful surprise, a gorgeously-rendered coming-of-age fairy tale, rich in romance and imagination. Were Leavitt to pen more tales in this vein I would be ecstatically happy -- this is a strong, fresh voice in the fantasy genre. Keturah's growing realization that the treasures of life are enriched by their transience, that the only constant in life is change, is a powerful reminder of the gift of life and choice. This is a story to savor!