I love a fictional series; for me there is nothing like seeing characters develop over time. When writing a single novel, the author has to include everything you need to know about someone in a short space of time, which means that their personality can be a bit ‘potted’ (or non-existent). When planning to write more than one book, an author can take their time in revealing a person’s past, strengths and weaknesses, and we can see the events of each book impacting on that character.
So it is very unusual for me to pick up a book that is part way through a series, but that’s what I did – by accident, I’ll admit – with this one, when I saw it in my local bookshop.
Set in Paris in 1585 during the troubled reign of Henri III, it follows the adventures of Giordano Bruno. An excommunicated heretic, he has returned from England, where he has been involved in espionage and murder, ultimately finding the country a little too hot for comfort.
He has evidently been close to Henri in the previous books as a tutor, mentor and even friend, so is quietly hoping that he may find patronage of some sort in the city. On his return, he sets about trying to get his excommunication lifted, so that he can feel a little safer, and seem more acceptable to anyone who may offer him work.
But Paris at the time is a seething, dangerous place. Memories of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacres are still fresh; the King is in a weak position, largely ruled by his mother – the ever fascinating Catherine de Medici – and trying to keep the various factions from tearing the city – and country – apart. It is also full of exiled English Catholic families, fleeing persecution in the England of Elizabeth and Walsingham.
Henri is a naturally tolerant man and would be happy to leave Catholics and Protestants in peace, but the reality makes this impossible. He has no direct heir, and the principal candidate – Henry of Navarre – is a Protestant, and this is the cause of many of his problems. His main opponent is the Duke of Guise, staunchly Catholic, and with the money and support to pose a serious threat.
Bruno goes to see an old acquaintance, a priest with connections, to ask him to intercede with the church on his behalf, but the man is murdered shortly afterwards. Guise initially believes Henri ordered the killing and that it could be useful as part of the ongoing propaganda battle, and the King suspects Guise may have murdered the man to give him just such an excuse. Knowing Bruno is back in a Paris, and trusting him, Henri asks him to find the truth.
Much to his surprise, he is eventually also asked to investigate the crime by the Guise faction, in the shape of Charles Paget, an English exile, who is a master of guile. As the mystery deepens, and more bodies appear, it becomes difficult to know who to trust, and who is using him for their own ends.
The work is tightly plotted, with a good feel for the febrile atmosphere surrounding the court at this time. Henri was simply the wrong man to deal with the intricacies of the situation, and even his mother was beginning to lose her sure touch. They are both forced to compromise and assume different faces for different audiences.
The main characters are well written, and largely believable, and it does keep you guessing. The motives of the different factions are well portrayed without resorting to ‘history lessons’ and this adds much to the overall atmosphere of the story.
My only reservation concerns the main character himself – Giordano Bruno. I know I have only read this one book in the series, but I’m unsure why the author has chosen him as her hero. As he appears here, he is an intelligent, pragmatic and likeable man with a flair for solving crime and working in the shadows.
In reality, he was an exceptional man; philosopher, poet, cosmologist, mathematician and, yes, excommunicated heretic. But he was, by all accounts, also pompous, arrogant and deaf to the opinions and beliefs of others.
Although there are only hints that he really was involved in clandestine activities, these are firmly to the fore here, leaving his real achievements – and personality – in the shadows. Whether they figure more prominently in the other books, I don’t yet know, but why base a series on a real person, only to ignore most of that person’s work and character? Particularly when that person is not exactly widely known. Why not just create someone entirely fictional?
This criticism aside, I found the book enjoyable with a keen sense of drama and many interesting characters. I guess I now need to read the earlier volumes if only to see if I can understand why Bruno was chosen as the main character!
This is a review of the Harper 2017 paperback edition.