Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

Title: Heresy
Author: S.J. Parris
Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Anchor
Published: 2011
Pages: 448

Rating: 7 out of 10

In 1583, Giordano Bruno, a former Italian monk who has been ex-communicated and branded a heretic for reading a banned book, travels to Oxford University with two purposes. The first is his pursuit of an ancient, lost manuscript that he believes holds the key to unlocking revolutionary secrets - if it exists, that is. Secondly, the Queen's powerful spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham has requested that he travel there in order to secretly investigate recent reports that a number of Oxford men are Catholic, despite such loyalties being strictly forbidden by the Protestant Elizabeth I.

I just loved the opening scene of this historical mystery, in which Bruno is frantically reading a banned book in the privacy of his abbey's outhouse. Coincidentally, I can remember quite well stashing books in the bathrooms of my childhood homes, waiting for a moment in the day when I could sneak off and go lock myself inside, supposedly taking a long shower (I was famous for them) while reading books that were "for older people" and not exactly approved of by my parents at the time.
Thus, the scene brought back fond memories.

Once Bruno is at Oxford, he is immediately thrown into a web of new intrigue and old secrets. Shortly after his arrival, a man is brutally killed by a wild dog in the courtyard. Though the incident appears to be an accident, Bruno's instincts and attention to detail leads him to believe that this 'accident' was in fact a murder. As he investigates, other victims at the university are also killed, until no one can deny that there is a killer in their midst.

The plot of this book was all very closely tied to religion in the Elizabethan era. Bruno's detective work concerning the string of murders leads him down a winding path of loyalties and politics, all closely intertwined with the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant.
The sub-plot, of Bruno's commissioned espionage for Walsingham, is essentially to root out Catholics and report them. Though Bruno does succeed in finding those who practice the old religion, he muses to himself about why exactly this is so wrong, and why the Queen's spymaster should concern himself with what religion other men choose to follow.
The second sub-plot, of the main character's quest to find the lost Copernican book (rumored to have been shelved in a hidden Oxford library), is also underlined in religion. Bruno seeks the book as he believes that it would answer many people's questions about God and the universe. Unconsciously, Bruno recognizes that the international unrest caused by church leaders and religious law could do with changing.

This book was fast paced and exciting, and I read it fairly quickly. I loved so many of the elements that the plot offered - the seeking of lost books, 16th-Century Oxford University, a priest/writer/spy hunting a murderer... It was all intriguing and certainly added a lot to the book, even if this was where it stayed.

This was a good book, but far from a great one - not for any particular reason, but simply for the type of book it is. The author gives quite a few nods to Umberto Eco in her writing, and there are some hard-to-miss plot similarities between this book and The Name of the Rose. However, I believe that Parris' story would have been far better off without these references. The truth is, this book is just your average historical mystery, read and approached lightly, for entertainment and/or to pass the time. Eco's writing, on the other hand, is brilliantly literary, the type of author that you ought to read (whether you like him or not) simply because he is one of the greatest novelists of the past century.
In other words, you shouldn't blatantly invite comparisons to Umberto Eco if you are admittedly leagues beneath him.

The character of Bruno didn't come across to me as well as I had thought it would. I loved him in the opening passages, as I stated above, but after that, the book focused on events going on rather than on Bruno himself. Though it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the story, I only stopped to think after I had completed Heresy that I still didn't really have a sense of who Bruno himself was. But perhaps he will be filled out more in the sequel - which is in the mail on its way to my shelves now.

I just loved the setting of Oxford, and I had been so excited to find a historical mystery set there. I am familiar with Renaissance Oxford in a sense of knowing its history, and look forward to one day actually going there.
Parris' depiction of Oxford wasn't quite so richly textured as I was hoping it would be, and yet, she never lets the reader forget about the setting. Bruno's detective adventures lead him to explore a good part of the university, and I loved the brief sharing of history and facts here and there.

The only glaringly negative aspect I could find here was Bruno's romantic interest, Sophia Underhill. At first it looked as though she was to be a major part of the story, but she was actually useless to the plot, and the climax (which involved her) felt catered toward her character, as if Parris felt obligated to center things around the only female. I didn't like her at all, and the way that Bruno's thoughts and emotions when it came to romance were approached seemed unconvincing and silly.

Besides a bit of a disappointing climax (it was thrilling, but somehow... hmm, not quite right), I really enjoyed reading this Renaissance mystery. Giordano Bruno was actually a real person, and the author provides plenty of information on him in her author's note. I love finding obscure characters of history like that.

Recommended for those who enjoy historical mysteries or are interested in religious politics of the Elizabethan era. I am looking forward to reading the second book.