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Keturah and Lord Death
Book
2006
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  New York Times Review

THE hardest part of writing fantasy may be getting the ending right. Often writers spin an intriguing premise into a whirling world of mystery, suspense and atmospheric adventure, only to let the whole thing collapse into a heap of disappointing nonsense. Not so Martine Leavitt in "Keturah and Lord Death," which was a finalist last fall for a National Book Award. The conclusion is the best part of this novel-length fairy tale: at once unexpected and inevitable, sad and triumphant, satisfying yet abidingly mysterious. The story begins with the narrative equivalent of Once Upon a Time, as Keturah, the 16-year-old heroine, follows a great hart into the forest. Keturah is an orphan with humble ambitions: "to have my own little cottage to clean, my own wee baby to hold and most of all, one true love to be my husband." She's also, as we learn right away in the prologue, a spinner of tales. So when she loses her way in the woods and Death comes for her, she makes like Scheherazade. She starts to tell him a story about a girl who finds her one true love, then stops in the middle and refuses to finish until the next day. "You think too highly of love," Death says. "Love is no more than a story spun out of dust and dreams, having no substance." Still, he wants to hear the end of the story, so he agrees to give her another day. And if she finds her own true love in that day, he promises, he'll let her live. The agreement sets the scene for a whowill-marry-whom story, which unfolds with the expected symmetries. Possible candidates for Keturah's hand include the town choirmaster, the tailor and a wealthy farmer. But Keturah's two best friends have their eyes on Choirmaster and Tailor, and Ben the farmer really needs to marry a good cook. Then there's the son of the Lord of the Manor, John. He's warm, brave, handsome. But isn't he too highborn for Keturah? Readers who think they know exactly where the story is headed will find themselves pleasantly surprised. Not that Leavitt frustrates all expectations - much of what clearly has to happen does happen. But she takes what looks on the surface like a rather shallow story and plunges it, from time to time, into the depths that come only with pain. The best scenes, and by far the most romantic ones, are those that include Death. "We all know Lord Death," the town wise woman tells Keturah. "It is closeness to him that imbues my stuffs with power. What is a love potion without the breath of him upon it? How can I make a healing draught without sensing from which direction he comes? One day you will understand, Keturah, that he infuses the very air we breathe with magic." DEATH is "tall and fine and strong," "royal and commanding," "a goodly man, severe but beautiful, not old but in the time of his greatest powers." He's not without compassion for those he takes, but he's as overpowering as any Gothic hero: "In the light of day he seemed appalling. How dare he ride in the sunlight without apology, without shame?" No wonder Keturah keeps spinning out her time with him, to the very end. Compared with the richness of the ending, though, the way there sometimes feels dusty and flat. There's a tradition of fleshing out bare-bones fairy tales into novels, spinning schematic Snow Whites and Cinderellas into living girls with freckles and foibles. "Keturah and Lord Death" evokes that tradition, but it might have been better shorter - fairy tale length, rather than novel length. At least in this book, Leavitt's mythmaking is more gripping than the specifics of her story. None of her other characters come alive half as well as Death. Polly Shulman is the author of "Enthusiasm," a young adult novel.

  Booklist Review

The romance is intense, the writing is startling, and the story is spellbinding--and it is as difficult to turn away from as the tales beautiful Keturah tells to the people of her village, Tide-by-Rood. But one day Keturah must use her storytelling skills with quite a different audience. Lost and hungry after following a stately hart through the forest, Keturah encounters Lord Death, who is ready to take her. Like Scheherazade, Keturah spins a story that she leaves unfinished and extracts from Lord Death a promise that if she finds her true love in a day, she can go free. But Lord Death is falling in love with her, and as the villagers begin to sense her alliance with this horrifying figure, her life twists and turns on itself. This novel gets so many things just right. Leavitt brings together a large cast of characters, but she personalizes them and weaves their stories into Keturah's, making it richer, denser, and more intricate. The plotting moves in and out of the everyday and the supernatural, but it's so finely tuned that the worlds seem one. Readers will be carried away on the wind of Leavitt's words, and few will be able to guess how she finally ends her story. --Ilene Cooper Copyright 2006 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

This lyrical tale adds surprises to the search for true love. Sixteen-year-old Keturah has never known love. When she's lost in the forest, the beautiful but severe Lord Death comes for her and decides to carry her off as his consort. Keturah strikes a bargain: If she can find true love in one day, thus proving to Death that there is more to love than dreams, he will spare her life. Scheherazade-like, Keturah draws out her single day into three, each night telling Death more of a story. Meanwhile, she examines the young men of her village as potential husbands, though without considering handsome John Temsland, the smitten son of her liege lord. As her deadline approaches, Keturah sees her village, her family and her friends as more beloved each day--her impending death adds spice to the mundane. Keturah's quest is lovely if (given its folktale style) not so original, but her unexpected solution to the puzzle leads to a thought-provoking and unabashedly sentimental conclusion. (Fantasy. 12-15) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
Martine Leavitt offers a spellbinding story, interweaving elements of classic fantasy and high romance in this National Book Award Finalist. Keturah follows a legendary hart into the king's forest, where she becomes hopelessly lost. Her strength diminishes until, finally, she realizes that death is near. Little does she know that he is a young, handsome lord, melancholy and stern. Renowned for her storytelling, Keturah is able to charm Lord Death with a story and thereby gain a reprieve--but only for twenty-four hours. She must find her one true love within that time, or all is lost. Keturah searches desperately while the village prepares for an unexpected visit from the king and Keturah is thrust into a prominent role as mysterious happenings alarm her friends and neighbors. Lord Death's presence hovers over this all until Keturah confronts him one last time in the harrowing climax.
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