First things first: You’ll want to know the full title of The Accidental Highwayman, Ben Tripp’s glorious foray into young adult literature:
“The Accidental Highwayman, Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, a Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides.” It’s such a tidy introduction to a book’s style, humor, and characters, laid out before you even crack the cover.
Second things second: I adored it.
On the face of it, the concept is ridiculous. We begin with a young servant lad, and end with a lovesick hero contractually locked in a multidimensional fantasy battle to save his girl and his country from a power-hungry fairy king.
Cue record scratch, right? You’re thinking, “It can’t be done!” But that’s where you’re wrong and Tripp is oh-so-right. His finesse turns an audacious idea into a balanced, delightful tale that I can’t recommend highly enough.
Christopher “Kit” Bristol is the sole servant to a shabby if respectable country gentleman in 18th-century England. Unbeknownst to Kit, his master masquerades by night as notorious highwayman Whistlin’ Jack. One night Kit finds him mortally wounded and pursued by an angry redcoat army, and he attempts to run for help.
In so doing, Kit assumes the persona of Whistlin’ Jack, unwittingly signing himself up to complete his master’s last mission. Little does he realize, he just jumped feet first into a world of magic, danger, and revolution.
His task is to rescue the fairy princess Morgana from her corrupt father. The king, dreaming of global domination, plans to merge the human and fairy realms by marrying Morgana off to a human. His scheme ignites a bitter civil war with Morgana at the heart.
Morgana is a nuanced and intriguing character, torn between waning respect for her father and devotion to her people. As a fairy princess, she has the requisite beauty (long hair, enchanting eyes), but that’s as far as the trope extends.
Tripp’s vision of Morgana was clear. He said, “I wanted to give the young people a proper princess to get to know – not one of those sparkling ball gown debutantes waiting for Mr. Right, not a tangle-haired tomboy rejecting her femininity.... I wanted to meet somebody with spirit and independence, but meshed in on every side by customs and tradition. A girl who doesn’t necessarily know what she wants or how to get it, but who knows she must shake things up if she’s going to find out.”
Kit and Morgana’s relationship is my favorite part. Poor Kit – he’s a down-to-earth boy in love with a magical creature, bungling every conversation and missing every opportunity. I couldn’t stop laughing at their missed signals, thinking of my own experiences at that age.
You see, teenage girls parse every blink, nod, and stutter for deeper meaning, hoping to draw great romantic conclusions from something as trivial as a loaned pen. Teenage boys just blindly hand over the pen with no concept of the Petrarchan sonnet it has become. Both sides are lashed to the prow of raging hormones, discovering the opposite sex for the first time with no clue how to communicate. It’s what Kit and Morgana are going through, only with supernatural complications.
Tripp (who is also the author of adult horror novels "Rise Again" and Rise Again: Below Zero") achieves a beautiful balance throughout the whole of "The Accidental Highwayman," conquering two tough plot concerns with poise: 1) the introduction of many characters to create a hodgepodge traveling party, and 2) the explanation of lore through fantasy lingo. If done poorly, the reader ends up feeling awash in unnecessary characters and adrift in a sea of vocabulary.
“The Accidental Highwayman” is free of such baggage, and it makes for a snug, streamlined read. Tripp’s skillful writing gives readers a sense of logic in a seemingly preposterous blend of fantasy elements.
This is a book for fans of William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” or L.A. Meyer’s “Jacky Faber” series, readers who enjoy fantasy hijinks, and anyone looking for a buoyant good tale. It's a rip-roaring, adorable read!