HERESY by S. J. Parris

Book Quote:

“And this is your sin also, Fra Giordano Bruno. You are one of the most gifted young men I have encountered in all my years at San Domenico Maggiore, but your curiosity and your pride in your own cleverness prevent you from using your gifts to the glory of the Church. It is time the Father Inquisitor took the measure of you.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowksy В (Mar 3, 2011)

S. J. Parris’s Heresy opens in 1576. A young Dominican monk named Giordano Bruno, who has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, is caught by his superiors reading forbidden books. He flees Italy and the Inquisitor, and is subsequently excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Eventually, he becomes a philosopher and a Doctor of Theology and plans to write a book “that would undo all the certainties not only of the Roman church but of the whole Christian religion.”

We next meet up with Bruno in 1583, under far different circumstances. After living from hand to mouth for years, he manages to become a favorite in the Court of King Henri III of France. When conditions in France threaten to become precarious, he joins his well-connected friend, Sir Philip Sydney, who is fiercely loyal to Queen Elizabeth I, on a trip to Oxford, England. While there, Bruno will engage in an academic disputation with John Underhill, rector of Lincoln College, but he is also surreptitiously carrying out an assignment on behalf of the queen’s personal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham. Bruno has been commissioned to learn the identity of papists who practice their faith secretly. The queen fears that these ardent Catholics are converting others and may be plotting to overthrow her. Another reason for Bruno’s visit is his desire to find an ancient manuscript that might allow him “to glimpse what lies beyond the known cosmos.” He optimistically hopes that when he reveals certain underlying truths, all men will be considered divine and religious conflicts will disappear.

When Bruno reaches his destination, he does not find the peace that he craves. There are those who despise him as a foreigner and a Catholic, and he is shocked by a series of grisly murders that leave the Oxford community reeling. Heresy is a complex tale of intrigue in which so many lies are told that Bruno finds it difficult to know whom to trust. The rector asks him to investigate the killings at Oxford without publicizing his intentions; this proves to be a thorny and dangerous undertaking. Eventually, he uncovers explosive secrets that, if revealed, could lead to the shedding of more blood, including his own.

Parris provides a meticulous description of Oxford and its environs, showing how members of the academic hierarchy care more about themselves than they do about justice or human life. In addition, she ably captures the troubled atmosphere in England at a time when Elizabeth and her followers used a network of informers to identify and root out Catholic loyalists. The author demonstrates how religious fanaticism, coupled with unbridled ambition, leads to strife and horrific violence. Early in the book, Bruno recalls that, at the age of twelve, his father took him to view an execution. A man was burned at the stake because he defied the authority of the Pope. Bruno never forgot the horror of the prisoner’s intense suffering or “the cheering and exultation of the crowd when the heretic finally expired.”

Giordano Bruno is an intriguing hero, all the more so because he is flawed. Although he is thoughtful, open-minded, and is willing to risk his life to uncover a sadistic killer, Giordano does Walsingham’s bidding for financial gain and the prospect of future patronage. At its best, Heresy is a suspenseful, exciting, and enlightening work of historical fiction. However, it is also a bit too wordy (the book is padded with endless exposition), and towards its conclusion, the narrative descends into melodrama. Parris throws a romantic subplot, secret codes and ciphers, and a cache of hidden papers into the mix. The liveliest characters are the rebellious Sophia Underhill, a young woman with keen intelligence and wit to whom Bruno is attracted, an earless bookseller named Jenkes who projects an air of unmistakable menace, and a priest with a thirst for martyrdom. Although it could have been streamlined, Heresy is worth reading for its unflinching look at the terrible punishments that were meted out at a time when Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 87 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another 16th century mystery:

Heartstone by C.J. Sansom


March 3, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: ,  В· Posted in: Facing History, Mystery/Suspense

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