3 out of 4 stars
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Kate Murdoch’s Stone Circle is a coming-of-age novel belonging to the magical realism genre. Set in sixteenth-century Pesaro, Italy, Stone Circle depicts the emotional, psychological and moral trajectory of two young men tackling the various struggles encountered in the face of impending adulthood.
There are two main characters, the first being Antonius, a male teenager from the poorer parts of Pesaro, whose family is need in of money after his father, the sole breadwinner, dies in an accident at sea. He moves to the heart of Pesaro and manages to find a job at the aristocrat Conte Valperga’s household. This allows him to join and win the competition held by the respected seer Savinus, whose ailing health had forced him to search for an apprentice to pass his vast knowledge and skills to.
The second young man is Nichola Valperga, Conte Valperga’s second son. An entitled and manipulative person, Nichola too joins the competition, and is awarded the role of the secondary apprentice to Antonius’s primary. Due to this, Nichola harbours feelings of jealousy and is antagonistic towards Antonius, as he believes that the role of primary apprentice should be his due to his status as Antonius’s social superior. Nichola therefore constructs nefarious plots and manipulates events to disgrace Antonius, even whilst Antonius tries to understand and forgive Nichola’s actions. The novel then continues to explore their path towards emotional maturity and adulthood by showing the reader their interactions, actions and motives.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stone Circle, and there are two major contributing factors.
Firstly, Murdoch possesses an impressive ability to weave an intricate and realistic background in which her characters live out their lives. It is also obvious that she has done a lot of research, as shown in the novel’s detailed portrayal of sixteenth-century Italian customs and traditions for the three social classes present: the peasant/lower class (Antonius), the merchant/middle class (Savinus and his daughter Giulia) and the upper/aristocratic class (Nichola and his family). Coupled with the fantastical (which include shapeshifting and the practice of alchemy), Stone Circle is able to retain an element of magic and mystery, despite being well-tempered with realistic elements for the reader to enjoy.
Secondly, I love the fact that Murdoch takes effort to portray realistic interactions between the abovementioned social classes. She also often chooses to utilise a single character to portray the thoughts and actions of another. From this, I was able to better understand and empathise with both characters, as their strengths and flaws are made all the more obvious – therefore becoming multi-faceted and relatable. I appreciate this, as it allows for deeper immersion into the story. In fact, I find myself raging for Antonius’s sake when he falls into one of Nichola’s nefarious traps; my heart is torn when Savinus is forced to confront the fact of his failing health; and finally, I am filled with empathy and understanding for Nichola’s actions towards Antonius when details of his childhood and inner thought processes are revealed.
However, if I had to list something that niggled at me, it would be the love triangle subplot between Giulia, Nichola, and Antonius at the end of the novel, which felt slightly rushed. I would appreciate a lot more insight and exploration into Giulia’s thought processes as to the emotional upheaval she must have experienced throughout the story, especially with her father’s rapidly deteriorating health and her own tumultuous love life.
In a nutshell, I give Stone Circle 3 out of 4 stars, and would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who loves a fast-paced story and multi-dimensional characters, along with a dash of magic. I would have given it 4 stars, had Murdoch had taken the time to develop the ending to its fullest potential. However, it is still a fascinating and exciting read – especially if you are looking for an enjoyable way to pass a few hours in your armchair with a cup of tea by visiting the bustling sixteenth-century city of Pesaro!
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