This is the fourth book in S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno series.
Giordano Bruno was a real person who lived in late 16th century Europe. He was a disgraced monk who abandoned holy orders because of his ‘heretical’ ideas on philosophy and science. He is probably most famous for his theories on an infinite universe. Excommunicated by Rome he travelled Europe making his living (with varying levels of success) as a teacher and academic, finding favour at times with rich and powerful figures because of his great intelligence.
S.J. Parris takes these facts and then uses her imagination to turn Bruno into a sort of travelling sleuth who solves crimes on his travels and become embroiled in plots and conspiracies wherever he goes! It is a great idea.
So far we have seen him in Oxford, London and Coventry dealing with the spies, religious radicals, murderers and plotters who were indeed abound in Elizabethan England. This novel is in my opinion the most exciting yet and sees him over the channel in the Paris that oversaw the end of the Valois Dynasty.
Henry III of France, one of many interesting characters in the novel based on real historical figures.
It’s a great setting. Set about 15 years after the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s day, when tens of thousands of Protestants were slaughters across France, we find a city taut with religious and political tension. The last Valois King Henry III, although still relatively young, is childless and not in the best of health and his cousin and likely heir is a Protestant. Will the King, whom most believe to be a homosexual, produce an heir with his long suffering wife? Will a Protestant on the throne reopen the barely healed religious wounds? Or will the Catholics find a way to force a Catholic succession with or without a legitimate Valois heir?
Bruno is drawn into this conflict when an old friend of his is mysteriously murdered and the clues indicate that the man had been part of a conspiracy at the heart of the French court possibly involving a plot to assassinate the King!
The best thing about this novel is that it is really exciting, full of danger and peril. It is also fun to learn more about the rather debauched French court which is run by the formidable Queen Mother Catherine De Medici. As for criticisms I found moments a little too gory, some of the poor characters really suffer under torture, but this is probably just because I am a wuss and the scenes did reflect the bloody times and helped raise the peril levels for Bruno. I also, in common with the other Bruno novels, felt the mystery itself to be a little weak. Parris is excellent at creating compelling characters and settings but she is no Agatha Christie when it comes to creating an intriguing mystery. At the ‘big reveal’ moment in each of the Bruno stories I have read so far I have felt a sense of disappointment at the solution of the mystery, a sort of “Oh, was that all”. But overall a great read and they do say the journey can be more exciting than the destination!
Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title. Hope you are planning to read it next month! It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).
The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth! Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.
The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation. Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.
Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno
Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas. While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in. After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.
Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford. Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task! He accepts with some reservations.
So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins! He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background. Hated by others because he has been excommunicated. People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner. He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style. He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft. He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance. As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!
There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!
I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
I do definitely think it is worth a read. The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting. I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better! But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on. In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).