THE STERKARM HANDSHAKE
The Sterkarm Handshake is yet another book I read in high school and always intended to buy, but never got around to it until quite recently. I remembered the novel as unusual and not popular, though at the time it felt it had been written for me — a tale specifically for a small subset of nerdy high-schoolers who liked history, historical linguistics, and time travel. But I returned to the books, for The Sterkarm Handshake is the first of a duology, knowing they were also rather flawed. I was interested to find out, as an adult reader with the benefit of historical hindsight, why these books did not succeed. To the best of my knowledge, neither book in the duology is in print any longer.
To briefly summarise, The Sterkarm Handshake is an adventure story in which a 21st century corporation, the FUP, has created a tunnel through time and dimension into an alternate universe’s 16th century. Intending to profit from the 16th century’s untapped natural resources, the FUP establishes contact with the warlords of the lawless English-Scottish borderlands and attempts to broker a trading relationship with them. In order to do so, they send Andrea, a young anthropologist, to live amongst the Sterkarms, study their ways, and find the best methods to gaining their trust and cooperation.
The first thing I noticed was that the book starts from the perspective of adults. The whole book maintains a floating viewpoint, skirting between subjective and omniscient third person. This in itself is unusual and difficult to get used to, especially as viewpoints change within the same scene, rather than through different chapters à la A Song of Ice and Fire*. For the first two chapters, though, this book is told through the eyes of an ex-military chief of security at FUP, and several geologists. There is a conversation with a geologist who infodumps a bit, and a teenage reader could be forgiven for becoming quickly bored and moving on to something else. I’m not entirely certain why I persevered when I first read it.
Of course, starting a story with different characters and introductory scenes is not unusual**. After all, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone did the same thing, and to say it was phenomenally successful would be an understatement. In this instance, though, it doesn’t quite pay off as well. Harry Potter was, to me, boring when I first tried to read it, and it took me several tries to get past the first chapter, because a middle-aged man named Vernon Dursley held no interest for me — but once I got past that hurdle I loved the book. When courting younger readers, commencing the piece with the intimate thoughts of an adult whose worldview is almost alien to the audience does create a hurdle. I don’t know if it’s all that common in more recent ya novels, since I haven’t read many of them, but I hope it isn’t.
That brings us to the main characters as well. The first is Andrea, who is the primary protagonist and was obviously created with the reasonable idea of inclusiveness: Andrea is fat, and mocked by other characters for her weight and appearance. However, the Sterkarm clan, who are 16th century warlords (more or less) in the English-Scottish borderlands, find her an ideal image of womanhood. Andrea is hardly the stereotypical ya female lead: she is already finished university and lives apart from her family. Her age is never made clear but my best guess would be at least 20. This feels another odd choice for a young adult novel, even if it is for “older readers”***. While I can understand Price’s decisions in creating Andrea, I’m not sure she achieved a character many of the intended audience could easily relate to.
Andrea attracts Per, the son of the Sterkarm lord, who is described insistently by the text as girlishly pretty. Clearly, the current stereotypical ya romantic male lead had not yet risen up in the form of Edward Cullen. Per is not handsome, dark or brooding, and has guile in spades**** but is not especially mysterious. He also comes from quite a different context than most readers and while this in itself is fine, I think the culture shock could have been handled more delicately. Violence and murder on the part of main characters seems to be a ya mainstay, but I doubt whether it is ever as mundane as it is in this duology. Per is not conflicted about murdering people because that is his way of life. Fine. It does demand a fairly strong grasp of moral relativism, though. I don’t want to suggest ya readers lack the intelligence to grasp moral relativism, but it is not a universal given even in adults.
There are other matters that make The Sterkarm Handshake strange. Written at the end of the 1990s, it has a good, old-fashioned environmental message and the main villain is a classic corporate psychopath. It is strange to read a novel with an environmental message, though, that was written before the idea of Climate Change had really come into the public consciousness. The 21st century scenes are set at some point in the future, when pollution and acid rain make life difficult, and tigers are extinct, but climate change doesn’t feature. The FUP intends to travel back to the 16th century to exploit the untapped ecological, oil and mineral wealth there — not because a climate crisis has driven them to seek back in time for arable land, for instance. Obviously this is because the book is a product of its time, but it does date it quite severely.
There’s also the romance, which is established in a vague way at the very start of the novel but still not quite confirmed. Per is also several years younger than Andrea, which is an oddity in ya fiction, if not an actual flaw.
Nonetheless, a good deal of these issues are present in the sorts of young adult books I recall reading in the pre-Twilight, pre-Hunger Games era. There was a lot of weird shit going on in demographic targeting toward teens in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I can’t really speak for before that. I do speculate, however, that the sudden and unexpected explosion of the Harry Potter series might have prompted publishers to be more adventurous in their ya buying, in the hope that something else unexpected would be able to ride on JK Rowling’s coattails. Susan Price was, of course, a well established children’s author for decades before Harry Potter came along, but The Sterkarm Handshake is strange and I doubt even an established author would have got it published today.
All that said, even on rereading there is a lot about the book to like. I’m still a history and language nerd, and I found the 16th century scenes to be quite well-researched, never relying on stereotypes of The Dung Ages or portraying the Sterkarms as intellectually inferior to their 21st century counterparts. Indeed, a large part of the story rests on the FUP’s assumption that the Sterkarms are naive and dull-witted, easily bought off with trifling 21st century items such as aspirin. Though it was at times a bit too much, I liked the language of the Sterkarms and the difficulties in cross-cultural communication. The plot itself is interesting once it gets started, and the action sequences in particular are very clearly choreographed and gripping. The characters are likeable and I got a sense of their genuine connection to one another, whether in fondness or contempt, as human beings.
As much as I’ve speculated on the reasons for its lack of popularity, I did really enjoy The Sterkarm Handshake. If you can find a copy, I urge you to give it a try.
*And countless, countless others.
**I still remember the distinct feeling of actual dread I felt when I first started Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, with its introduction featuring the caretaker at the old Riddle House. I worried I might somehow have fallen victim to a printing error and have received something else entirely.
*** Is this category even a thing anymore?
**** To the extent that it is literally the entire point of the story.