Rob Ruggenberg’s seventh historical novel is another thrilling, cinematic adventure that effortlessly transports you to a piece of forgotten history.
The naval battle of Sluis (1603) between the Spanish and the Dutch during the Eighty Years’ War and the story of a woman from Medemblik who ended up as a slave in the pirates’ nest of Salee (Morocco) inspired Ruggenberg to write this book. From the unusual perspective of the Moorish galley slave Zain — the son of a Dutch slave and a Barbary slave trader — Ruggenberg tells a captivating story of cruel wars, human trafficking and religious strife.
What sets Ruggenberg’s work apart is his thorough, journalistic approach. Everything that this former journalist has written is partly based on facts and is well researched. So you won’t find any annoying anachronisms. His nose for a good story also results in some surprising perspectives.
Believable young characters like Zain, who, far from home and torn apart by doubt and loneliness, have to fight to survive, are typical of Ruggenberg’s historical adventures. Thirteen-year-old Nunôk from his IJsbarbaar (Ice Barbarian, 2011), for instance, is unforgettable, an Inuit boy who was abducted from Greenland in 1624 by lost Dutch explorers. Or fourteen-year-old Reyer, in De boogschutter van Hirado (The Archer of Hirado, 2013), who finds himself on a Japanese island as an apprentice merchant for the Dutch East India Company, where he falls in love with a girl called Sakura.
Forbidden or impossible love and culture clashes in days gone by also feature in Slavenhaler (Slaver, 2007), Manhattan (2009) and Haaieneiland (Shark Island, 2015). These accessible themes, combined with Ruggenberg’s vivid and sensory writing style and exciting plots, explain his popularity with both adult critics and young readers. It was no surprise last year when Shark Island won the Thea Beckman Prize for the best historical children’s book of the year twice, both from the children’s jury and from the professionals.
It is also commendable that Ruggenberg never romanticises the past. His descriptions of historical events are often realistic and raw. The sketch of the ‘drowned land’ around Sluis in the featured title, with the corpses of Spanish soldiers, ‘rotting in the mire of the creeks and mudflats’, prey for both wolves and young scavengers, convincingly demonstrates how the past was all about survival. The name’s Ruggenberg — get reading!