In Dan Scannel’s THE FALL OF A SPARROW, historian Michael Devon, with the help of a friend, discovers a journal written by one Henry Howard, a young student in Paris during the reign of King Henry, which hints that the ages-old debate about the true identity of William Shakespeare may finally have an answer.
Henry Howard’s story is the one that makes up the majority of the book; though the historian’s work provides a neat frame narrative about Shakespeare’s real identity, most of the events are centered are Howard’s life. He’s a newcomer to Paris, but rapidly falls into a ragtag group of friends from many different walks of life, including sex workers, waitresses, priests, and fellow students. Scannel deftly weaves in references to history and Shakespeare’s work to tell an imaginative story rooted in reality.
Unfortunately, the story Henry is telling isn’t all that compelling. Scannel’s writing is detailed and full of vibrant language, but, with the book being so short and trying to juggle two plots, a generous handful of characters, and a balance of historical accuracy with inventive fiction, some things will naturally be left behind. In the case of THE FALL OF A SPARROW, it’s character. The plot itself is exciting, but hard to really feel because little time is spent developing the people living it. Testagrossa, a priest, feels the most real–he’s both flawed and valiant, his values and problems making him more believable.
The lack of characterization is a shame, because the story, a retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, could be compelling. But even with Testagrossa, it’s hard to feel attached. The story differs significantly from the famous Shakespeare version, so it’s not a problem of predictability–it’s just that the characterization of the central figures doesn’t hold up. They feel like pawns being moved through a series of events rather than true actors with agency.
THE FALL OF A SPARROW may not be an approachable book for all audiences, but it’s not a bad read. For those who enjoy immersive historical stories for the thrill of experiencing the world as it used to be, there’s plenty to enjoy in Scannel’s well-crafted prose. Though it’s not a classic compared to the storyteller whose life it fictionalizes, but Scannel is a capable writer, with this book being a nice popcorn read for history fans, even if it doesn’t dive too deep.
~Melissa Brinks for IndieReader