There is a long history of prejudice against people with dwarfism, and while today we know it is usually caused by a genetic disorder, author Katherine Marsh details the cruel treatment of Renaissance dwarf jesters in her fascinating new novel. To imagine the world of Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, Marsh drew inspiration from a portrait of a court dwarf to Philip IV of Spain, “Don Sebastián de Morra” by Diego Velázquez—a painting that suggests sympathy for the poorly treated little people of the day.

Jepp leaves home for court, thinking that a whole new world will open for him; what he finds instead is a version of slavery. Punished for helping another dwarf try to escape, Jepp is sent to Uraniborg Castle to serve Lord Tycho, a character based on the real Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Although a brilliant seeker of truth about the stars, Tycho is an eccentric, often cruel master. Jepp’s place at dinner is under the table, and he sleeps in the stable with Tycho’s pet moose. At first given menial tasks like filling inkpots and cleaning Tycho’s celestial globe, Jepp begins to learn from the scholars around him and eventually reveals his secret command of Latin. “Fate has cast me here, but I wish to learn and better myself,” he tells his master.

With an engaging hero and unusual setting, Jepp is compelling historical fiction about the treatment of those who are different and the challenges they face to be viewed as equals.

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