The Sterkarm Handshake
(Scholastic Point, £5.99, 464 pages, paperback, published 17 October
2003; ISBN: 0439978963.)
The Sterkarms live in the sixteenth century border country between
England and Scotland and are mainly left handed, thus when they shake
hands their dagger hand is free. That's why you should never trust the
When men and women from the twenty first century use a time tunnel
to travel back to the sixteenth century they expect they will have no
trouble exploiting the primitive people they meet there. Posing as Elves
they believe they have binding agreements with the Sterkarms, and if,
as seems increasingly apparent, a Sterkarm handshake cannot be trusted
then superior 21st technology will ensure the job is completed. Andrea
Mitchell, an anthropologist working with the Sterkarms finds her loyalties
increasingly divided as the Sixteenth Century people's constant minor
treachery causes the partnership to fall apart...
I liked this book. Written with tremendous pace, it had me hooked
from the opening pages; however, what really impressed was Price's trick
of combining historical detail with well observed social comment without
in anyway slowing down the story.
Price is not sentimental about either the Sterkarms or the twenty
first century society that seeks to exploit them. She illustrates both
their good and bad points without favour, but the real charm in this
book is the way she gives real insight into our own society by contrasting
it with that of the more primitive Sterkarms.
Andrea Mitchell is bullied by her boss because of her large frame,
but what the twenty first century men call "Big and Fat" the Sterkarms
call "Bonny" and she is granted greater respect by the Sixteenth Century
men because of this. She is courted by the son of the leader of the
clan, a young man still doted on by his parents. Price has a keen eye
for the emotional details. Young Per was kissed and cuddled by his parents
as a child, now as a grown up they see no reason to stop this, and the
son often walks hand in hand with his father. Nonetheless, Price does
not fall into the trap of sentiment. Despite being the obvious heroes
of the book, the Sterkarms are nevertheless portrayed as the ignorant
yobs they essentially are, willing to fight and kill over the theft
of a sheep.
The action moves from the Sixteenth to the Twenty First century and
back again: introducing a host of believable characters, and throughout
all of this the plot rolls steadily along to its bitter sweet climax.
A thoughtful, well written book.
Review by Tony Ballantyne.