Elisha Barber lives in a fourteenth century England with witches and mages, unlike our own world, and war, poverty, and suffering, very much like it. He does all he can with his two hands, both acting as a barber, cutting and shaving men and women alike, and as a surgeon, plying the medical trade to save lives. But when he fails to save the life of his brother’s child, or indeed his brother himself, due to a feud that he initiated, Elisha can hardly live with his sins, and his capture by the king’s men is almost a mercy. Sent to practice his trade on wounded battlefield soldiers, Elisha learns to practice his true gift in the face of opposition thrown at him from every possible angle.
This book starts off rocky. It’s hard to explain why; I think it just took a little while for the book to find its purpose and its actual story. The first few chapters are almost like a prologue, an explanation as to why Elisha gets where he’s going, and as such don’t really feel like they fit the story as well as they might. Once I’d persevered past that point, though, I could see why it was chosen to go first, because the rest of the story can’t happen without it. It’s worth continuing, in any case, if you do find yourself somewhat stuck there, as what comes after is a lot better than the beginning.
Mainly, this is because we see Elisha in his element, and start to actually learn more about the world that he lives in. His skills as a medical practitioner start to come through, and we can admire the fact that he’s saving men’s lives and fighting in the face of “modern” medicine. Of course, some medieval medicine did more harm than good, while some actually was perfectly sufficient, and Elisha experiences both kinds, although more of the former than the latter.
In terms of characterization, Elisha is the only character that we actually come to know particularly well; the book is experienced exclusively through his perspective, although it’s narrated in third person. Everyone else seems to be the mirrors through which he discovers himself and what he can actually do. Most of the characters are either good or bad, aside from a couple whose intervention changes his life at various times. A lot of the characters are somewhat stereotypical peasants with hearts of gold, while the truly “bad” characters are nobility. But there is enough variation amongst the nobility to avoid falling into any traps, and in any case, Elisha is the star of the show, with the book a bit too short for us to get to know anyone else particularly well.
Finally, the magic system. Mages in this book have a few skills; they can talk to one another through various mediums and they can transform similar objects into other objects. They also seem able to feel other people’s emotions by attuning themselves to the environment and other people, but I felt like that particular skill wasn’t as well defined. There are other abilities too, but they were also not as clearly defined, leaving me to wonder what else the author might come up with!
In all, Elisha Barber was a very solid, ultimately enjoyable read – a great choice for someone who enjoys reading about medieval England and fantasy rolled up into one. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for the next in the series.
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