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'Accidental Highwayman' Stands And Delivers

The unfortunate thing about The Accidental Highwayman is that it looks too much like something it's not. From the gorgeously designed cover and elaborate title to the apologetic editorial front matter and interior illustrations, it looks like a book aware of its place in a specific history: namely, 18th century England's high demand for stories about real, live highwaymen, stories about their dreadful deeds and doleful demise, packaged in layers and layers of moralizing justification for the muckraking glee in which the reader was about to indulge.

If Highwayman is aware of that history, it chooses not to engage. Instead, this is a charming fantasy romp through a thoroughly theatrical version of 18th century England, something that, back then, would have been called a romance. And that's fine, except for disappointing this Brit-lit scholar's hopeful expectations of a richer textual complexity.

Kit Bristol, a former circus performer, is the only servant employed by James Rattle, charged with supplying his dissolute gambling addict of a master with food and beer as well as looking after his magnificent horse, Midnight. Kit enjoys his life, and is fervently loyal to his master — even when the latter stumbles home dressed all in black and bleeding from gunshots, revealing himself to be Whistling Jack, a famously wanted highwayman.

Jack dies in spite of Kit's ministrations, bequeathing to Kit his clothing, dog and horse, and a mysterious mission that will embroil him in the politics of two nations — one of which is Faerie Land. Joining Kit on his adventure are several small fairies, an exiled witch, an acrobat from his circus days, her amnesiac uncle, a shape-shifting fairy princess and an orangutan.

This book was delightfully fun; Kit is an engaging point-of-view character, and tucked away between amusing dialogue and wacky high jinks are occasional moments of real poignancy. I also appreciated the book's detailed rendition of Faerie Land and its inhabitants: They use bees as messengers, turn into moths after death, and instead of the stock allergy to iron, the fey fear gold and work only with silver. Fey magic is also very cleverly depicted, impish and uncertain in a way that pleased me very much, and the overall tone and atmosphere are of a sprightly fairy tale come to life.

After the initial disconnect, The Accidental Highwayman disappointed me in only a few respects. I wanted to see more of the female characters, in particular: Morgana, the fairy princess, and Lily, the acrobat, were both just different enough from stock characters that I was very interested in their lives and motivations, and heartened to see them befriend each other and care for each other's problems. But as characters they remained rather one-note throughout once their purposes were established: the love interest, the plot device. I kept hoping they'd be more present as characters in the narrative, and instead kept falling back on feeling grateful they were there at all.

The editor's note — in which Ben Tripp explains that he found this manuscript in a family box that had been locked for centuries, and begs you to forgive any anachronisms that he's brought into the text by trying to clean it up — really was a misstep, setting up expectations of something like The Princess Bride's editorial interference without delivering. What the text does deliver on from that note is the anachronisms: I found myself tut-tutting, for instance, over the use of lucifer matches almost a hundred years too early. The ending was also a bit abrupt, but if it provides a plot hook for a sequel, I'll take it.

Ultimately, the book is very much like Kit himself: a charming young adventurer dressed up as something he isn't, but easily forgiven on account of his buoyant enthusiasm. Warm, funny and entertaining, The Accidental Highwayman is an enjoyable 18th century pantomime I'd be pleased to revisit.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amal El-Mohtar