Black Powder, by Staton Rabin, for Timeslip Tuesday

Black Powder, by Staton Rabin (2005, Margaret K. McElderry Books, YA, 228 pages).

14 year-old Langston is black, and his best friend Neely is white. It hasn't made a difference to them, but it does matter to the leader of Neely's gang. When Neely wants out, after his gang kills a black kid, he himself is shot and killed.

Langston is devastated. When his kooky science teacher invites him over for a demonstration of the time machine she has invented (Langston being something of a science geek), he becomes convinced he's found the way to save his friend's life--simply travel back to the 13th century and keep Roger Bacon from introducing gunpowder to Europe! The time travel part goes smoothly enough, but convincing Bacon to burn his records is harder. Even dvds, showing the terrible trajectory gunpowder would take (brought back along with a portable dvd player) don't convince him. And in the meantime, Bacon has his own enemies...who also want to put a lid on his experiments forever!

Black Powder is a disconcerting mix of serious time travel with hefty moral imperative, almost farcical elements (such as the wacky science teacher, and a bunch of crazed knights, and the antics of the "shell" Langston left behind in his present), and moments of utter implausibility (Langston just happens to meet an African slave girl and help her to freedom! She is is true love! Medieval monks are totally unphased by dvd players! There is a miraculous slice of lemon!). As such, it was something of a roller coaster for me as a reader.

On the plus side, I loved meeting Roger Bacon, and I think Rabin did a fine job bringing him to life. Langston was a passionate and convincing central character, with a great brain and a lot of heart. It was an interesting look at the age old question, can history be changed, and, if so, is it right to try to do so?

On the down side, I was disappointed in Rabin's portrayal of Langston's experience as a black kid in the middle ages. It seemed a situation more worthy of attention than she gave it. And apart from the little dips farce-ward that kept kicking me out of the book (was it necessary for a 13th century Italian to sound like a 20th century caricature?), I kept being disturbed by small details. For instance, Greensleeves might well have a tune older than Henry VIII, but I don't think a medieval monk would have been singing Henry's words. The time of the crusade mentioned is a few years off. In short, it didn't work for me as convincing historical fiction (although I did enjoy the nice long author's note at the end! I had no idea I didn't know so much about Bacon!)

So this was a book I could almost have really liked, but which, even though it was moving at parts, and fascinating at others, didn't work for me. The anti-gun-violence message, although one I am whole-heartedly in sympathy with, meshed uneasily with 13th century England. I do think, though, that this is one a younger teen might enjoy much more than I did. I think a younger reader might appreciate the humor more, and be troubled by disbelief less, than I was!

Thanks to Kate Coombs, aka the Book Aunt, for sending me this one!


  1. Thank you for this great review about a book I've never heard of! The whole 'Black kid travels back to the Middle ages' aspect makes this book sound like it would be a really engrossing read but the fact that the author rarely remarks on it is disappointing to hear.

    I know nada about Bacon/the history of gunpowder either so I'll look for this book around my library one day (since it doesn't sound like I need to rush to read it).

  2. This book does sound like it has a fresh plot. I'm disappointed it didn't meet its potential. I've been getting into more time travel books recently. Are there any you would recommend (YA or adult)?

  3. You're very welcome, Ari! There are other time travel books that I think do a better job capturing the strangeness of being black in a white world--Annette Laing's books, and The Black Canary, both of which I've covered in past Timeslip Tuesdays.

    Thanks for stopping by, Michael--I'm not sure what genres you particularly like, but Connie Willis is great...I have a whole slew of timeslip links up under the top header.

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  5. Sorry, but I just don't remember! It's been too long since I read it.

  6. What is the plot of this book? It seems real interesting, I want to read this book.

    ,& Can I have a quick summary? Please and Thank You.

  7. It's been a while since I read this; I'm afraid the summary in the blog post is the best I can offer!


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