Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

19613980The fifth book in the Giordano Bruno series, Conspiracy, has everything we’ve come to love and expect from these fabulous novels by S.J. Parris: an excellent hero, toxic politics, intelligencers trying to outwit, outlast and out survive each other and, of course, the continuous deadly and vexatious issue of the 1500s: religion.

Yet, what I love about this series also left me, in Conspiracy, a little bit irritated at times too. In that, a great deal of the plot was driven not by Bruno’s intellect and ability to read signs and people (as has happened in previous books), but by his propensity in this one to make critical errors and find himself in deep trouble and even outright danger. The good Dr Bruno kept repeating the same mistakes and trusting and/or putting his faith in those everyone except him knew he shouldn’t. Rather than solving dilemmas, he stumbled in and out of them – and then, lo and behold, did the same thing again! This became quite frustrating. However, in terms of the richness of the book and the pleasure gained from reading it, these are small criticisms.

The year is 1585 and Bruno is a reluctant returnee to Paris. The effete Valois, King Henry III is on the throne, his mother, Catherine di Medici rules from behind with an iron fist, controlling her son and his policies and all the while, the ambitious Guise family do what they can to promote rebellion and arouse dissatisfaction with the king and his court. In other words, France is not unlike the England Bruno left behind, something the presence of many English Catholic exiles and spies also makes apparent. Yet, Bruno is not pleased to be back.

Deciding he needs to make peace with Rome if he’s to have a future, Bruno seeks out a priest he knows (who also happens to be a member of the radical Catholic League) in order to beg him to facilitate the reconciliation process. When this priest is found brutally bashed and is only able to utter one last word, “Circe”, to his friend, Bruno, before he dies, suspicion falls on the Italian doctor and the Hugenots.

This being a Bruno story, more deaths follow and though he knows it puts him in danger, Bruno agrees to help the King and the Duke of Guise (who approach him independently and quite dramatically) to track down the murderer. But what if it’s those asking for his help who are guilty?

From dank and stinking prison cells to court masques, monasteries, libraries, boudoirs, the streets of Paris, the Seine, and hotel rooms, Bruno needs to pull out all stops – physical and mental – to solve these murders and before the killer or killers set their sights on him.

Written in its usual fine style, this is a solid addition to the series, even if Bruno’s silly decisions and the repetition of events and consequences did get a tad tiresome. The historical detail is superb and the book ended with a wonderful possibility that will no doubt lead our erstwhile philosopher down more fantastical and dangerous paths.

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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: The Elizabethans by A.N Wilson

After some quite shaky moments where I wanted to hurl this book from my sight, I ended up thoroughly enjoying and learning from A.N. Wilson’s, The Elizabethans, a rigorous and highly entertaining study of England and its people throughout the long reign of Elizabeth the First.

The book commences with a statement that rapidly needed explication: that is, that we are only now, in the Twenty-First Century, seeing the end of the Elizabethan world. Startled by this observation at first, I then understood what was meant, as in the first two chapters Wilson quickly covers Elizabeth’s disastrous campaigns in Ireland and attempt to oppress and subjugate its peoples before examining the beginnings of English expansion and colonialism in the New World. Shocking the reader with some cold, hard facts about E11733162nglish geographical growth and plans for domination (I think one of the terms used was “Seeding” – but that may have been another book) it soon becomes clear that Wilson is being deliberately provocative in order to insist the reader suspend contemporary judgement and the sins of “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc.): that we view the Elizabethan world through Elizabethan eyes, politics, religious upheavals and belief systems and that we, as far as possible, withhold judgement (and for the sake of better words, “politically correct” assumptions and thus criticisms about actions and decisions – though this is very, very hard) and instead seek to immerse ourselves in this rich, brutal, decadent, paranoid, artistic and amazing time.

While I initially struggled with some of Wilson’s assumptions (and though he is an historian, he makes many, liberally sprinkling the text with terms like “possibly” and “maybe” and words that, as one chapter is titled (borrowing a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen), lie “twixt earnest and twixt game”, sitting somewhere between fact and writerly elaboration) – let me give you an example of one of the worst.

It happens on page 207. This is where I almost put the book down never to pick it up again. In chapter 17, when writing about Sir Philip Sidney and Ireland, Wilson discusses William of Orange and the Protestant upheavals in the Netherlands:

“English involvement in the Low Counties was something about which Queen Elizabeth nursed ambivalent feelings. In the years 1585-6 the English soldiers serving there, and the people of the Netherlands, suffered acutely from an excess display of all her worst character traits – vacillation, tight-fistedness, hysterical rages. Presumably [another one of those twixt words] the ill-fated campaigns in which thousands of Englishman, including Sir Philip Sidney, perished coincide with her menopause (my emphasis).”

Yes, you read it right. I was astounded. Elizabeth’s menopause was the reason so many men died and suffered needlessly? Good God.

After my initial shock at this blatant, frankly offensive and bold postulation, I found myself reconsidering how to read and respond to the book. The information is wonderful, the scope wide and fascinating and the characters that people this landscape so interesting. Sure, Wilson peppers the history with his observations and witticisms and, frankly, obvious adoration for as well as somewhat misogynistic attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, but it was like being in the presence of a really, really knowledgeable professor at university who discourses freely around a subject about which he knows a great deal and isn’t afraid to offer his own opinion and interpretation of people and events. I imagined him pausing or raising an eyebrow, daring a response with a twinkle in his eye (yeah, I know, I am now twixting). In other words, I felt he was challenging us to think, pushing us to move outside known historical squares and ruminate on what might have been… even menopause, I guess…

Instead of continuing to be offended or concerned, I chose to sit back and go along for the ride, enjoying the gossip, his asides, the facts, the summations and learning more about Elizabeth, Dudley, Dee, Essex, Burghley, Hawkins, Walsingham, Marlowe, Jonson, Sidney, Harrington, Lyly, Campion, Raleigh, Burbage and so many more than I might have from a more, shall we say, circumspect book or author (and I have read and enjoyed many).

The times are beautifully evoked – from the narrow dirty streets of London, the sermons at St Paul’s, the lawlessness of Bankside and the Stews, the piracy and profligacy – and not just of Drake, Raleigh et. al., to the dreadful conditions of the poor who suffered more than any others through plagues and failed harvests and the ravages of constant threat of invasion and wars offshore. The religious schism of the times, the ideological fracturing that occurred and the people that both fell into and profited from the cracks that followed are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.

By the time I finished, I found I really, really liked this book. Furthermore, I liked Wilson and his historical chutzpah – comments about women and menopause and the attribution of blame (as well as other problematic and taxing statements) aside. That he concludes the book by referring to Elizabeth as a distinguished monarch (even with all her flaws and faults) who the British can thank for the country (or, I guess, curse) they live in now reveals the esteem in which he holds this woman of history, but it’s not an esteem that is without qualification or, as I said, awareness of her very real failings. Wilson wears his little British heart on his leather-padded elbow sleeve and I admire him for it.

Wilson is the sort of bloke I wish I’d had as my history lecturer – and I had some marvellous ones. If you want to take a confronting, rollicking and always interesting ride through Elizabethan times, then this is the book for you.

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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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