Tag Archives: Walsingham

Book Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

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).

Heresy

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.

giordano-bruno

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).

3.5/5

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