Book Review: Sacrilege by S.J. Parris

The third book in Parris’ Giordano Bruno heretic and spy series, Sacrilege finds our philosopher hero, Bruno, at his most vulnerable yet. Still living in the French embassy it’s not until Bruno discovers the identity of the person following him through the streets of London that he’s reconnected with someone from his recent past, someone for whom he has strong feelings. When asked to Sacrilegehelp this person clear their name of a crime they didn’t commit, Bruno is unable to refuse. Seeking the permission of his employer, the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham to go to Canterbury, he’s also tasked with uncovering any Catholic plotters in the heart of a city once famed as a site of pilgrimage and the place where Thomas Beckett’s bones were once buried.

Travelling under a non-de plume, Bruno arrives in Canterbury and discovers plots and plans aplenty. But when the body count rises and he’s accused of terrible crimes, it’s not just his friend’s name he has to clear or Sir Francis’ suspicions he has to lay to rest. Bruno finds himself fighting for his life and the only way he can save himself and his friend is to uncover a conspiracy so dark and tightly controlled that has the potential to bring down the greatest men in Canterbury – men who will stop at nothing to protect their own hides, even if it means killing innocents.

Once again, this is a terrifically written and paced novel that allows fans of the series even more insights into the central character and the strengths and, indeed, weaknesses that make him so appealing. Whereas other books have focussed a great deal on the ideologies and philosophies that shaped the era, the laws of the cosmos, the role of magic and mathematics, divine intervention and Bruno’s opinions and studies in these areas, lending the books a historical authenticity and the demonstrating the author’s research and understanding, this novel relies more on character and plot and I think is better for that. Any references to beliefs or famous treatises and how they influence Elizabethan thought is seamlessly woven into the narrative rather than sitting apart as a dinner conversation or dialogue/debate between two learned men. It’s as if Parris is more comfortable with her material now and the reader can appreciate her considerable knowledge and she can just get on with the story. And what a story it is – treachery, sacrilege, betrayal, love, death and faith all feature as does the book for which Bruno will sacrifice anything… or will he?

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Book Review: Prophecy by SJ Parris

The second book in the Giordano Bruno series is set in 1583 and finds the Italian heretic and former monk, Bruno, ensconced in the French Prophecy (Giordano Bruno, #2)Ambassador’s residence in London, where plots against Queen Elizabeth’s throne fly thick and fast. Still working for the spymaster and queen’s secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, Bruno keeps his ear to the ground, discovering unlawful correspondence and Catholic conspirators everywhere he turns… Or are they? Told to rely on another of Walsingham’s men, Fowler, for help, Bruno finds himself reluctant to share information. On the one hand, he is uncertain just who is inciting treason and who isn’t and wants to be sure before he accuses, on the other, he wants to deliver the culprit to justice himself. At the same time, celestial events are attracting a great deal of attention and Bruno is drawn into Her Majesty’s conjurer, Dr John Dee’s, strange practices, and the notion that a prophecy that predicts the downfall of the queen draws nigh.

As the book opens, however, Bruno’s position as both spy for Walsingham and member of the Ambassador’s household, becomes even more complicated when a young woman and one of the queen’s ladies is found ritualistically murdered in the palace. The way her body has been displayed indicates not only occult involvement, but also connections to the French Ambassador’s home and Dee’s predictions. As the body count grows and the signs point more overtly towards the French and the fulfillment of a prophecy, Bruno knows he has to act. But just as Bruno watches those who he suspects of terrible intentions, there are those who watch him and will stop at nothing to make sure their plans succeed.

Parris has really done her homework here, using known events and a documented conspiracy as a backdrop for this exciting, fast-paced novel. Just as Bruno is a real historical figure, so too are most of the characters, the plots and the correspondence that’s used in the tale. That a mole working for Walsingham dwelled in the French Ambassador’s residence throughout this period is also known. Going by the name Henry Fagot, he did indeed alert Walsingham and thus Cecil to the dire goings on and plans between the French, Scots and even the Spaniards, providing invaluable information. While Fagot’s real identity is unknown, Parris clearly inserts Bruno in this role (and some historians believe it could well have been him) and it works wonderfully well.

The French Ambassador had a reputation as a fine host whose table not only provided delicious food but also scintillating conversation, something Bruno particularly was expected to provide. It’s no surprise then that Parris dedicates quite a bit of the story to table conversations, recreating the dangerous and witty repartee with flair, as well as the religious schisms, strange beliefs and fears and cunning of desperate men and women. Not only that, Parris breathes life, ghostly, smelly, exciting, deadly, into Elizabethan London, making it is as much a character in the novel as Bruno.

A highly superstitious era that both loved and feared all things prophecy and magic (both were illegal as well), Parris weaves the precarious position of Dr Dee and the gruesome murders into her tale to create a tense and forbidding atmosphere where shadows, double-speak, ciphers, codes and mists rule. Nothing and no one is as they seem and it’s against this backdrop that Bruno must solve the murders and uncover the truth of the plots against the crown.

A terrific novel that any lover of mysteries, crime, and historical fiction will appreciate.

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Book Review: Heresy by SJ Parris

This was a strange book in so many ways – and I mean that more positively than to infer the opposite – strange can be good, right? Ostensibly a historical novel that, while a work of fiction features real people – the main one being the lead character, the excommunicate Roman priest and humanist philosopher, Giordano Bruno – it also uses quite modern if literary language to tell its Elizabethan tale of murder, mystery, spies, religious heresy and mayhem. Due to this, it asks for a leap of faith from the reader – of the literary rather than the religious kind – and we do this willingly.

Establishing Bruno’s credentials as someone genuinely disenchanted with the Catholic church (he’s caught reading inappropriate materials and the Inquisitor is sent for, which forces him into exile), he arrives in England years later to be hired by Queen Elizabeth’s great spymaster, Walsingham himself, and is sent to Oxford University. Travelling there to debate the forces of the uHeresy (Giordano Bruno, #1)niverse with the Rector, Bruno is also asked to uncover any heretics – Catholicism having mostly gone underground during this period – as a plot to assassinate the queen has been discovered and the search for those involved (directly and indirectly) is underway.

While at Oxford, a series of “maytyr” murders take place – gruesome and clearly spelling a warning – but to whom and why is not immediately clear. Determined to unearth the killer, Bruno hasn’t quite accounted for the prejudice of the English towards foreigners, the passions of Catholics nor the unexpected pleasure of the Rector’s beautiful and clever daughter, Sophia.

The closer Bruno gets to the finding the killer or killers, the greater the danger grows until it’s not simply Bruno’s soul that’s at risk, but his very life.

While this novel is an Elizabethan mystery, it’s also very self-consciously historical and in that sense, it sets out to be accurate in its descriptions and in the way it characterises some of the people it introduces into the story. I always enjoy that kind of didacticism if it’s done well and, mostly in this book, it is. Parris (a journalist) knows how to do her research and incorporate it in an interesting manner. And so you have long dinner conversations that demonstrate both the ignorance of the era as well as the cleverness of the protagonist (and in real life, he was), as well as lovely details about Oxford University, it’s buildings and rules and the relationships between staff, students and servants and the various rituals that make up the day.

Where I found the book pushed the boundaries a little too much was in its tendency to introduce characters either for the purposes of “proving” this was a dinky-di historical novel (eg, the extremely annoying European nobleman Bruno is forced to accompany to Oxford and Sir Phillip Sidney, both of whom didn’t really serve any useful narrative purpose except as genuine figures from the past) or as devices to wrap up plot points. There’s one character particularly from whom Bruno finds out a great deal of information that leads to the identity of the killer. This character is a “simpleton” and in one scene, even while doubting the wisdom of telling Bruno everything (ie. that he possibly shouldn’t), he still spills his guts, allowing clever Bruno to put five and five together. In other words, this character was created purely to reveal a great deal of information at the right time and I found that a tad clumsy, even though I liked the character.

Some of the characters are also a little too black and white as well as smart alec, but in a stupidly disrespectful way, though this also adds to the tension.

The scenes describing torture and execution are very well done, if grisly, and also reveal Parris’ knowledge of and appreciation for the era.

Overall, while I tended to skim read small parts of this, I really enjoyed others and if you like a good historical murder mystery that isn’t quite in the league of The Name of the Rose, but is nonetheless very good, then this is for you.

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