Sweetly Gruesome or Gruesomely Sweet?

I don’t think it’s any secret that I am a fan of books with a touch of the surreal and/or fantastical. No surprise then that I enjoyed K. M. Grant’s How the Hangman Lost His Heart. It’s a fun little romp with a healthy dose of the absurd. The premise alone gave me a good chuckle: after witnessing the execution of her beloved Uncle Frank, high-born Alice decides to steal his head from Temple Bar (where it’s been put on display as a lesson to other traitors) and reunite it with his body. In doing so, she enlists the aid of Dan Skinslicer, the very executioner who took off poor Uncle Frank’s head. Unfortunately, no sooner have they made off with the head than they mislay it. Hijinks ensue as Uncle Frank’s head bounces around London pursued by Alice and Dan, who are in turn pursued by the King’s Light Dragoons. Along the way, they encounter a host of odd characters such as the dashing Capt. Hew Ffrench, nutty Faraway Granny, villainous Major Slavering, and weak-willed Lord Chief Justice Peckersniff.

Grant was able to pack quite a bit into a scant 244 pages, and the book is surprisingly rich in historic detail. The carnival-like atmosphere that accompanied 18th century executions, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the battle of Culloden, the English justice system, military life, and the Catholic/Protestant clash are peppered throughout the book, giving it just enough substance to offset the silliness of the plot. It was just the sort of breezy, engaging read I expected. What actually caught me off-guard, though, was how sweetly and genuinely touching I found the ending. I even shed a tear or two (the it’s-so-sad-but-somehow-beautiful kind, not the everyone-is-miserable-why-did-I-read-this-horrible-book kind).

But you don’t have to take my word for it. The UK branch of the Puffin Books site has an excerpt available here.

Now off you go. Visit your local library’s YA department.

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