England in the fourteenth century: a land of poverty and opulence, prayer and plague...witchcraft and necromancy.
As a child, Elisha witnessed the burning of a witch outside of London, and saw her transformed into an angel at the moment of her death, though all around him denied this vision. He swore that the next time he might have the chance to bind an angel’s wounds, he would be ready. And so he became a barber-surgeon, at the lowest ranks of the medical profession, following the only healer’s path available to a peasant’s son. Elisha is good at his work, but skill alone cannot protect him. In a single catastrophic day, Elisha’s attempt to deliver his brother’s child leaves his family ruined, and Elisha himself accused of murder. Then a haughty physician offers him a way out: serve as a battle surgeon in an unjust war. Between tending to the wounded soldiers and protecting them from the physicians’ experiments, Elisha works night and day. Even so, he soon discovers that he has an affinity for magic, drawn into the world of sorcery by Brigit, a beautiful young witch...who reminds him uncannily of the angel he saw burn.
In the crucible of combat, utterly at the mercy of his capricious superiors, Elisha must attempt to unravel conspiracies both magical and mundane, as well as come to terms with his own disturbing new abilities. But the only things more dangerous than the questions he’s asking are the answers he may reveal.
What did you love best about Elisha Barber?
The characters and settings were so well-drawn that even weeks after finishing the book I can see the scenes in my mind.
What did you like best about this story?
The fascinating descriptions of medieval medicine and how the barbers fit into the medical picture, and the inventive depiction of magic.
Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
In the beginning, I dreaded it, but couldn't put it down.
Any additional comments?
The narration was excellent and the magic compelling. I'd recommend it.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
I was recommended ELISHA BARBER by a friend of mine, fellow reviewer Steve Caldwell, who sent me the first two novels with the first in audiobook CD form. I was doing a lot of driving during that time so I had time to soak in the ten hour storyline. I'm glad I did since I feel this is a really overlooked gem in the "gritty Medieval fantasy" collection that seems so popular right now due to Game of Thrones. It's, simply put, about a Medieval barber (more surgeon than hair--though he does that too) who gets dragooned into being a field medic due to a series of tragic events that get him arrested for his brother's death.
Elisha, himself, is a character who strangely reminds me of the Witcher's Geralt. Not in the context of being a badass--the two characters couldn't be more different in their combat capacity. Instead, they are the unusually empathetic individuals who hold cynical world-weary attitudes born from the fact they know they're from a barbaric time where superstition is valued over reason while hate is more powerful than love. It's as if someone managed to combine Geralt with Doctor Gregory House. The fact Elisha is a working-class hero who doesn't get any of the respect or wealth a educated physician possesses is also a note more toward Geralt than Gregory.
The villains of the book are a bit too one-dimensionally evil for my tastes with the Physician and King being especially heinous [expletive]. Nevertheless, they served their purpose as embodying the privilege and casual cruelty of their stations. As Talisa the nurse said to Robb Stark, his father's death may be of the greatest importance to him but thousands of innocent men on both sides are paying the price for his actions. I also very much like the ambiguity surrounding the character of Bridgit as her own plans went in directions I did not expect.
There's some genuinely powerful moments throughout the book with the race to save his sister-in-law, the grim discovery his stillborn nephew has to be sawed out, the horrible discovery in the woodshed, and the punishment Elisha suffers for his midnight rendezvous with a woman above his station. I also felt catharsis at the climax when powerful forces went to town on the worst of the people surrounding Elisha. This is a book with a lot of great moments and they, by themselves, cause me to recommend it strongly.
James Clamp does an impressive job throughout as he manages to put real emotion into all of Elisha's scenes as well as do a suitably haughty voice for the enemy characters. He does decent female voices as well, which not many male narrators can. Really, though, his Elisha is a masterwork and would not be the same without him.