As peasants in late 14th century England, Asta and her son are bound to the land, serving their feudal lord, who has been off fighting the war in France. The steward who governs them in their lord’s absence is a cruel man who for some reason has taken a disliking to Asta’s son. When Asta dies, the steward falsely accuses Asta’s son of stealing and orders him to be executed. The boy seeks refuge with a village priest. The priest gives him a lead cross with some writing on it that the boy cannot read. The priest also tells him that his true name is Crispin and that he knows who Crispin’s father is. But before he can reveal any more, the steward’s men attack, killing the priest. Pursued, Crispin barely escapes into the forest where he meets a traveling jester named Bear who takes him under his protection. Crispin and Bear travel the countryside together, Bear gathering support for a dangerous peasant rebellion, and Crispin trying to discover his true identity.
Like many of Avi’s historical fiction novels, Crispin (winner of the 2003 Newbery Award) features lot of action and adventure as well as thought-provoking reflection on the customs and society of the time period in which the novel is set. The character of Crispin is not as interesting as some of Avi’s creations, largely because in this first book, he plays the role of a victim, raised in a society where he was not allowed to think or act for himself. But through his association with the significantly more interesting and rebellious Bear, Crispin begins to gain a stronger sense of identity and agency. His story continues in the Crispin: At the Edge of the World and Crispin: The End of Time. This dark, gritty historical trilogy will most likely appeal to middle-grade readers who enjoy adventure and coming-of-age stories.