Masterfully blending true events with fiction, this blockbuster historical thriller delivers a page-turning murder mystery set on the sixteenth-century Oxford University campus.
Giordano Bruno was a monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. This alone could have got him burned at the stake, but he was also a student of occult philosophies and magic.
In S.J. Parris's gripping novel, Bruno's pursuit of this rare knowledge brings him to London, where he is unexpectedly recruited by Queen Elizabeth I and is sent undercover to Oxford University on the pretext of a royal visitation. Officially Bruno is to take part in a debate on the Copernican theory of the universe; unofficially, he is to find out whatever he can about a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen.
His mission is dramatically thrown off course by a series of grisly murders and a spirited and beautiful young woman. As Bruno begins to discover a pattern in these killings, he realizes that no one at Oxford is who he seems to be. Bruno must attempt to outwit a killer who appears obsessed with the boundary between truth and heresy.
Like The Dante Club and The Alienist, this clever, sophisticated, exceptionally enjoyable novel is written with the unstoppable narrative propulsion and stylistic flair of the very best historical thrillers.
S.J. Parris began reviewing books for national newspapers while she was reading English literature at Queens' College, Cambridge. After graduating, she went on to become Deputy Literary Editor of The Observer in 1999. She continues to work as a feature writer and critic for the Guardian and the Observer and from 2007-2008 she curated and produced the Talks and Debates program on issues in contemporary arts and politics at London's Soho Theatre. She has appeared as a panelist on various Radio Four shows and on BBC2's Newsnight Review, and is a regular chair and presenter at the Hay Festival and the National Theatre. She has been a judge for the Costa Biography Award, the Orange New Writing Award and the Perrier Comedy Award. She lives in the south of England with her son.
Always a fan of historical fiction, I decided to come back to the S.J. Parris series that I tried a few years ago. Parachuting into the middle of the religious wars across Europe and using late 16th century England as a setting, Parris creates quite the story that has many facets, sure to entertain the reader. Giordano Bruno was never the most conforming monk when he took his orders in Naples. He sought to educate himself and challenge the beliefs of his monastic order quite regularly. When he was caught with a controversial (and illegal) book one day, Bruno chose to flee rather than face the severe punishment. After spending years on the run from the Inquisition, Bruno was excommunicated and left to educate himself in some of Europe’s best universities. When Bruno makes his way to England, he is welcomed as somewhat of an outcast and invited by one of the close advisors of Queen Elizabeth to make his way to Oxford. With little to lose, Bruno begins the journey in the royal party and prepares to explore the clash between the celestial and religious aspects of the universe with a well-established priest. During all this, Bruno comes upon an event that can only be murder, though the local authorities are baffled about it. A curious investigator with an interest in solving cases, Bruno begins to look into events, as more men soon find themselves dead. Bruno is eventually formally invited to help solve the cases, all of which eventually have a common theme. While trying to probe a little deeper, Bruno’s papist past could come back to haunt him in England, even as he tries to explain that he no longer has ties to the Roman Church. With a killer on the loose and Bruno’s own safety in question, no one can be sure what will happen or whose blood will be shed. An interesting tale that opens this series with a bang and keeps things moving effectively throughout. Recommended to those who love a good historical mystery, as well as the reader who enjoys exploration of the religious situation in 16th century England.
This is one of those books that will take some dedication and attention to detail in order to properly enjoy its premise. Parris writes clearly and very well, though there is so much going on and woven into the narrative that tuning out could mean disaster for the reader. Giordano Bruno proves to be a wonderful protagonist, with a great deal of backstory. His flight from his monastery offers an interesting story arc that can be followed, but it is his mysterious arrival in England and passion for challenging authority that will keep Bruno’s character one that the reader will enjoy. As Parris sets some of the needed groundwork for the series, she creates a wonderful character who is not afraid of rocking the proverbial boat. Other characters to just as well to keep the reader guessing, as they fill the narrative with their own points of view and keep the mystery strong. The story was quite well-paced, if perhaps a bit too detailed for my liking. I took the audiobook approach and was welcomed with the soothing voice of John Lee to guide me along. The story is rich with history and religious clashes, both of which creates something that is dense at times and overwhelming for some readers. With chapters of a decent length and a plot that evolves throughout, Parris does well with this piece and introduces some needed backstory that will surely play a role in coming novels. Bruno’s position will surely be questioned throughout by the English, but his attention to detail when it comes to mysteries is sure to be something the reader can enjoy. I am eager to see where things go from here, as the time period begs for more tales that mix religion and criminal activity.
Kudos, Madam Parris, for a great start to the series. I am eager to see where things are going and will try to keep focussed enough to enjoy the rest of these books.
Heresy is the first of a series of novels by S. J. Parris based on the real life of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno. The prologue begins in 1576 when the Dominican Fra Giordano must escape the Roman Inquisition for his belief that the earth rotates around the sun as well as his study of magic. After his escape from Naples Bruno has traveled through Italy, then to Paris, and is now in England. He is reliant on benefactors, such as the King of France, for his living expenses. The time is now May 1583.
During his travels, Bruno befriended Sir Philip Sidney, who is recently engaged to the daughter of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham pays Bruno to go to Oxford to help investigate whether there are any Catholics among the scholars since the practice of the Catholic faith has been outlawed by the queen. It is arranged for Bruno to debate Rector Underhill about the theories of Copernicus. While there he is to find and infiltrate any group of Catholics.
Bruno has a hidden motive in wanting to visit the university. Many books were banned and burned by the Royal Commission in 1569, including those in Oxford’s library. Bruno is trying to find a missing manuscript written by Hermes Trismegistus regarding the ability of man to enter and understand the divine mind of God. He believes the library at Oxford holds the key to locating this book.
The morning of the debate one of the fellows is killed by a mad dog in a courtyard. As a witness to the murder, Bruno is requested to stay at Oxford for the investigation. He quickly learns that no one at Oxford is truly who he seems. There is in fact a group of Catholics among the faculty and students, including the murder victim. An anonymous note indicates that the murder, and the two more deaths that follow, are being done in a style to mimic the deaths of three saints. While it is obvious the murders are being done in the name of religion, it is unclear whether the culprit is Protestant or Catholic.
The story picks up towards the end when Bruno is lured into a dangerous position on the promise of information regarding the missing Trismegistus book. He is further motivated by his attraction to Rector Underhill’s daughter, Sophia, who has mysteriously disappeared.
The author does a good job of depicting Tudor England, especially regarding those who were forced to give up their Catholic faith by Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth.
3-stars. I liked the story but didn’t love it. This book was published in 2010 and is 435 pages long. The subsequent five books in the series have higher ratings on Goodreads than this first one.
I couldn't read this book without always comparing it with John Crowley's Aegypt tetralogy. The works aren't similar at all except they both prominently feature Giordano Bruno. Crowley made Bruno into a full character and spent a good deal of time looking into the things that Bruno believed and studied. Parris just kind of throws them out there and the more interesting facets of the Nolan's studies are kind of lost and only get used to give a feeling of historicity and color to the story.
I'm being unfair though. Parris's Bruno isn't flat as much as too much of a regular dude. Instead of being the renegade monk that would burn for heresy and who could memorize entire books through a prodigious memory system he devised this Bruno is more of a lackadaisical freethinker who kind of would like everyone to just get along. He's made into too much of a good guy. A nice man. Something I don't think he necessarily was, especially when confronted with dogmatic enemies. Not that I have any reason to think of him as not a nice man in his dealings with people but from the one (yeah, I don't know shit, but that doesn't stop me from saying shit) dialog I've read by Bruno his mode of attack is more like Christopher Hitchens, instead of the nice and plodding, here are the facts, aren't you going to pay attention to my facts style of say a Noam Chomsky.
I don't really know what I'm talking about though. I enjoyed quite a bit of this book. I'm not normally interested in reading historical mysteries but this one had enough of my little interests in it to keep me interested. Although I was more interested in the dealings of the schismatic Christians and the heresies being superficially discussed than the murder mystery. Actually, when I thought of the mystery part of the book I felt kind of cheated. I'm not much of a mystery reader (so I say in my umpteenth review for a mystery novel, when will I accept that I do on occasion read mysteries?), or I do read them sometimes but the ones I read are usually more in the 'crime' vein; but what I meant to say somewhere in this sentence is that the mystery part seemed really boiler plate. Like the mystery story could be told over and over and over again but just stick a different setting on to it. Like the murders could be happening in Jena while dialectician Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is watching history come to a close with Napolean's march through Europe and the Owl of Minerva is hooting it's fool head off and murders are happening to fellow scholars, but in between debating about the rationality of the Master/Slave dialectic he solves a series of murders against stanch British empiricists and Bonapartists. Plug in all the new terms and you'd have a historical mystery. And then another historical mystery could be solved by Jean-Paul Sartre when members of the French Resistance start winding up dead he investigates through the underground of the Gestapo, collaborators and freedom fighters to get to the bottom of these mysterious deaths. And so on, but I really don't know what I'm even saying, except maybe that the mystery part felt a little stale?
But maybe historical mysteries are written for people to enjoy the little color details while a plot moves forward because of murder. And my problem is that not many historical mysteries are written starring historical people or time periods that I have much interest in. Now a Jew in a concentration camp forced to solve the mysterious death of SS officers, now that I'd probably read and then write yet another review about the holocaust and our historical retrogression to barbarity or whatever I ramble on about in those reviews.
I liked this book though. I wavered at times between wanting to give it between two and four stars. Some of the dialog is very stilted and doesn't feel like something men versed in the minutia of competing apologetics and heresies would say but it was an entertaining enough book to read.
Giordano Bruno was one of the 16th century's most erudite visionaries, a Dominican monk who fled the Church after being accused of heresy. His cosmological theories went beyond Copernicus's heliocentric visions; Bruno was the first European to conceptualize the universe as a vast continuum populated by many galaxies. He was also a visionary writer on the concept of memory and avid scholar of mysticism.
Naturally, his curious mind made him very unpopular with Catholic authorities, struggling as they were with the catastrophic repercussions of the Reformation. In S.J. Parris's debut novel, aptly titled HERESY, we first meet Bruno as he is caught in the privy with a forbidden book. When the Inquisition is called in, Bruno flees the scene and ends up in Elizabeth I's London, where, as an associate of Philip Sidney's, he's invited to debate at Oxford. Bruno seeks a lost Heremetical manuscript; he's also been secretly hired by Francis Walsingham, the queen's ruthless spymaster, to investigate a possible Catholic cell operating at the famed university.
Bruno soon finds himself the target of xenophobic comments and suspicion, even as he is drawn to the university rector's lively daughter. A series of grisly murders reveal evidence that Oxford indeed harbors a hotbed of Catholic conspirators, drawing Bruno out of his intellectual comfort zone into a shadowy world where faith and persecution are inextricably entwined and killing in the name of God is a hallowed act. While Bruno’s much-vaunted accomplishments take a back seat to his skills as an amateur sleuth, the story offers some eerily discomfiting moments, depicting a far less tolerant Elizabethan era than we may imagine, as seen through the eyes of a man for whom science and reason are paramount. Secondary characters are skillfully drawn, including a sinister bookseller and the haunted son of an exiled Catholic fellow. HERESY offers an engrossing mystery, an unusual look at the ever-popular Tudor world, and a promising initiation into a new series featuring Giordano Bruno.
"I was not afraid to die for my beliefs, but not until I had determined which beliefs were worth dying for." ~pg. 8 (Great line.)
It was an interesting story, but a bit too slow-paced. I think my biggest problem, though, was that it never really captured any sense of urgency or fear, even when it was supposed to. I was also surprised, in looking back, that all the events happened in 5 days, because it seemed more like going on two weeks.
I'm not really sure what to say about it. I guess I just wanted to like it more than I did. There was a blurb by Matthew Pearl about it, and I loved his The Poe Shadow: A Novel and enjoyed The Dante Club: A Novel. This story actually reminded me a little bit of 'The Dante Club' with the theatrical set-up of the murders, but I feel that Pearl evokes the time periods much better, not just in his desriptions but in his style. This book was written in a thoroughly modern style, so I had a hard time getting into the periodness of the story.
Also, very few of the characters were really likable, which is always a problem for me. Perhaps it's just because some of the characters who I think I would've liked were never fully developed. I had a hard time discerning the profs from each other for the longest time. It actually helped when they started dying off.
And I think I just prefer the types of mystery stories like Sherlock Holmes and Monk, where the detective sees things no one else does and puts things together, revealing the mystery and their genius for all and sundry. This was more the type where the detective bumbles around, finds out information almost by accident, and then the villain reveals his master plan while he has the detective trussed up and ready to die.
Of course, since it's written in first person, the suspension of disbelief - the fear that the protagonist might not get out of the trap - is even harder to maintain since there's 50 pages left in the book, and who else is going to narrate them?
But even when he was captured, even though it said he was afraid, it was never really properly evoked. I felt very distanced from all the goings on, never really involved, never properly engaged. I was curious to know the whodunit, but more as an intellectual exercise instead of any personal or emotional investment.
All in all, it was kind of ho hum
The parts at the beginning, and some of the theological tension, was much more interesting than the murder mystery. If the story had focused on him as a person and the experiences of the Catholics and Protestants, as well as his search for the book, I think all of that would've been much more interesting. I am interested in Giordano as a character, both historical and fictional. It was the plot that was less interesting, though.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
******Full Disclosure**** This was an ARC copy, that was received through the Goodreads Advance program. I am grateful for the chance to have read this novel, which I might not have purchased otherwise. Written by S.J Parris, a pseudonym for "a journalist for various newspapers and magazines, including the Observer and the Guardian", named Stephanie Merritt, this is an historical novel that takes substance from the life story of a Roman Catholic excommunicate priest named Filipo Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) The mysteries that Bruno, who is eluding the Inquisition as a roving philosopher/mathemetician/astronomer/heretic and probable spy, finds himself surrounded by during a teaching visit to Oxford University, are loosely based on his real history as a guest of Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham. Whew, there's a LOT going on here! I found the context of the story, and the associated history fascinating, but the actual story let me down a little. The murder mysteries don't really get started until well into the book, and by then, if you're not already interested in the history, or the more "eternal" questions about religions, faiths, and the ways they've shaped our thoughts about them, you might not get much farther into the story. No matter if it was from some sense of obligation to my publishing benefactor, or just a hope that something had to happen pretty soon, I'm glad I kept going. As I was reading "Heresy", I found myself looking for more information about the true-life adventures of our Dr. Bruno. Ms. Parris has chosen her hero well, as there is a wealth of very interesting information available, that really doesn't require too much literary embellishment. The murder mystery portion of the program had the obligatory gore that we've come to expect from these period pieces, thanks to Dan Brown, and even Mel (think Braveheart) Gibson. But, it was used as such an obvious device to get to the religious subtext, that one more horrific murder in the name of choosing sides, lost a little of its effect. It was this device however, that I thought brought the real story to the forefront. In the context of the battles today for the claims to a religions "rightness", we forget some of the battles that have gone before. We forget that some "established" religions only attained that status because they were no less determined/ruthless about their survival than some upstart sect with a different dogma. Anyway.. "Heresy" by S.J. Parris is a book that I would recommend to fans of fictionalized history, especially that have to do with religions and the history of those conflicts. I have a feeling we'll be seeing Dr. Bruno in some further adventures, and I'll probably look in on him. I can always say "Hey, I read that before Shia LeBouf played him".
The historical figure Giordano Bruno has fascinated me for years. An accomplished man of many disciplines, a former monk who defied the church in his dedication to the truth at a time when such things got you tortured and brutally killed. When I saw a well-marketed historical thriller was coming out starring Bruno, I couldn't wait.
Imagine my disappointment then when I found myself flipping through pages and skipping sections just to find out what eventually happens and be done with the book. What should have been fascinating characters and the dark intrigue of Cambridge University in the 16th Century plodded and never engaged me. Didn't care about the characters and so didn't really care what happened.
Sad to say, I can't recommend this book, even to fans of historical fiction. Then again, I was monumentally bored and frustrated by another historical featuring subjects and characters that always intrigued me, "The Historian" which garnered a lot of critical and popular success. Guess I just expect a lot more than a new take on popular historical subjects. I need engaging characters and a driven plot. This book falls short in both.
It's flaw is the length and density. Other than that, it is intense and an historical fiction read that cuts close to the time's "correct" think. Or else. This is under Elizabeth I's last half of her lengthy reign. The torturers and executioners are operating full boat.
And Oxford is performing scenarios that are rather familiar to the present, IMHO. Not how to think but what to think is key. Faculty, students, debaters or visiting nobles- expression is duplicitous and "culture conscious" behind every pair of ever tightening and whispering lips.
We have two murders and one occurs even before Bruno gets to his scheduled "disputing" evening event. In all surrounds, he is not the only one walking fine and crooked lines between Catholics, inquisitors (of both) and righteous Protestant Englanders.
Nevertheless, the prose itself flowed and had exquisite descriptive immensity. To the points of not just architecture, but brutality of bodily demise as well. Not in one way or two- but in numerous and ever escalating mutilations of how to die. Be warned. It is OF that time in great swabs.
But in other ways it is not. The only crux I see here that at points becomes conflictive is the nature of our runaway monk himself. It's (his concepts of spiritual and dogma especially) just too post-1750 to be believable for this period. But of course, I forgive it.
Another point I loved was how the character of Sophia was context threaded. She is realistic. Not a saint and not worldly wise and not all intellect. Rare for this period to have such reality of female "eyes" put into any fictional story. But probably far more accurate than all those heroines you read in other concocted tales which hold 19th or 20th century social warrior ideals within a 12th or 16th century world. S. J. Parris does not hold to that standard. Brava!
If I had read this first before the Dead of Winter (3 novellas of Bruno's youth and 20's in the Naples monastery)- I probably would not have understood the dichotomies as fully as I did. But I liked the case and the numerous (dozens) of characters enough to continue next to Giordano Bruno #2. And possibly onward.
Saying that, it will probably be more spaced than I had anticipated. Because these are not easy read in the sense of "quickness" or of uptake material within them. Dense and multi-directional far beyond just the Latin or language proclivities.
Bruno is brave. But I find that some of the situational juxtapositions ARE a bit forced. Having a conscience is one thing, but being embedded in such history of flight and escape?
It was a terrible time for intolerance of thought and language of free speech in particular. More similar to the present in those exact channels. It's usually horrific when Academia, Media, Political Power are all on the same supporting walls to a building of intolerance. So exactly familiar - the mean and evil spirited anger of the "better" righteous.
Given a lifelong interest in the Tudor period and my prior enjoyment of C J Sansom's series, I was drawn to the first in this series set during the reign of Elizabeth I. Giordano Bruno, a real historical character, is the protagonist, who tells the story in first person narrative. The Prologue introduces Bruno some years before the main action, where he is threatened with being brought before the Inquisition due to his taste in reading and his adherence to the theories of Copernicus - that the Earth orbits the sun rather than the other way round. Bruno's own views go further and he believes in other solar systems, which is regarded by the Catholic Church as heretical, and heretics are burned at the stake.
The main action cuts to several years later after he has escaped across Europe, having many trials on the way. Despite winning the patronage of Henri III, the French King, he has had to take ship to the more tolerant country of England to evade the extremists now coming to power in France especially as he is still on the Inquisition's wanted list. Francis Walsingham, the Queen's spymaster, recruits him - he is due to go to Oxford in the company of his friend Sir Philip Sidney to take part in a debate. While there, Walsingham wants him to ferret out any Catholics who might be plotting against the Queen. Ironically, Bruno has to pass himself off as a Catholic - as an Italian, he does not seem quite as endangered as English Catholics might be - especially since he is now what we would regard as a humanist. Certainly, he does not believe in either the Catholic or Protestant dogmas.
In Oxford, Bruno is soon embroiled in trying to catch a killer when one of the college fellows is murdered and other deaths follow. All this is against a background of college politics, religious conflict, outright hostility towards himself as a putative Catholic, and his own attraction to the daughter of the Rector: an attraction he must resist as, reliant on patronage as he is, he cannot offer a respectable woman a secure future. Meanwhile he also wants to check if a certain book, lost centuries before, has been brought to Oxford as he believes it would enable him to mentally contact the Godhead and find out the secrets of the universe - this is the 16th century after all.
There is quite a bit of action in the story: Bruno can handle himself in a fight and even kill in self-defence when necessary - something he has had to do since fleeing the Inquisition. He comes in for a fair bit of physical abuse in the course of the story, although the fact that there are further volumes takes away some of the suspense when his life is threatened.
Overall I found it an interesting read and was kept guessing by the murder mystery although I did guess one part of it . One problem I had was that in a few places I was slightly thrown out of the 16th century immersion by the use of a modern turn of phrase. I can't recall now what these were and I know the author is trying for a more readable prose narrative and dialogue than would be the case if it were really phrased in Elizabethan English, but these were such modern expressions that they did jar. By contrast, the Shadlake series by C J Sansom, which is the nearest thing I have come to this, does not do this. I'm not also totally convinced about the character being the real historical ex-monk/philosopher - there isn't really enough 'meat' to make that believable for me (plus in view of the real life fate of the historical figure, it would make reading it too sad to equate the two). So I can't quite award the story full marks and instead rate it a solid 4 star read.
This was a very good read. An intelligent, thoughtfully conceived thriller that combines the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism in 1500's England, a series of strange murders at Oxford college, and the suspicion of anyone different that leads to unfortunate choices and tragic results.
Giordano Bruno is a runaway from his Dominican monastery in Italy. He fled just ahead of the Inquisition for the crime of possessing and reading books on the "forbidden" list, such as the theories of Copernicus. A scholar and seeker of knowledge, Bruno runs rather than submit to torture, and becomes a wandering outcast.
Eventually, he gains the protection of King Henri of France, and becomes friends with Sir Philip Sidney, who is betrothed to the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state.
Bruno agrees to spy for Walsingham, to try to root out secret Catholics, who may plot the assassination of the Queen. He is sent to one of the Oxford colleges and assigned to insinuate himself into the college and determine whether there are any traitors in its midst.
Once Bruno arrives at the small college however, it becomes apparent that there is more going on than the possibility of some rogue Catholics. Shortly after his arrival, one of the Fellows of the college is savagely murdered by a wild hunting dog that has inexplicably found it's way into a locked garden in the college that few have a key to.
Soon, more murders take place, and Bruno attempts to determine the truth of what is going on, while battling the English fear of foreigners and searching for an elusive book of ancient knowledge which he greatly wishes to read.
This is an unusual thriller, in that it focuses a great deal on the religious war that took place after Henry VIII broke from Rome and established the Protestant religion. One of the best lines in the book refers to this battle, near the end: "If any good had come from the bloody events I witnessed at Oxford, it had been to convince me that, now more than ever, Christendom desperately needed a new philosophy, one that would draw us together as we passed from the shadows of religious wars into the enlightenment of our shared humanity and shared divinity."
The book is well-written, with clever characters, a complex but interesting plot and lots of intrigue and double-blinds to lead the reader through the mystery toward the climax. Lovers of historical fiction, religious history, or just clever thrillers should enjoy this.
We first meet our protagonist Giordano Bruno on the privy, reading a forbidden text in a monastery in Naples in the 1500s.
Unfortunately he is discovered, and Bruno's unabated desire for forbidden knowledge and the alleged sin of pride makes him a target for the Inquisition and he is forced to flee Naples.
On the run for years, he agrees to go to Oxford in 1583 to work as a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham to root out traitors to Queen Elizabeth I. Those practising Catholicism must do so in secret, and it is feared that there are plots to assassinate the Queen in order to return England to the Catholic faith.
However there is soon a bloody murder in Oxford and others tragically follow. Bruno begins to investigate, not knowing whether the murders are related to a treasonous plot or the work of a bloodthirsty member of the University.
Not trusted due to his status as an outsider, Bruno runs into his fair share of difficulties and this is further complicated by his own private and secret mission to use the opportunity in Oxford to track down an extremely rare manuscript.
Heresy is an excellent historical fiction novel, and the reader is able to gain a wonderful sense of being in 1500s Oxford. In fact, I was in London at the time of reading the novel, and twice visited Oxford while reading this book. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading these pages, having just visited these locations and being able to picture the places and scenes precisely as they were described. It really added to my reading pleasure.
Heresy is the first in the Giordano Bruno series of books by S.J. Parris, of which - at the time of this review - there are three: 1. Heresy by S.J. Parris 2. Prophecy by S.J. Parris 3. Sacrilege by S.J. Parris
I have the next book in the series on my shelf already, Prophecy, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.
The author has done a commendable job in writing an enjoyable mystery set in the Tudor era, not my favorite time period by any means and which I try to avoid if possible. I almost skipped this novel but am glad I did not. I liked its involving others than the royal family and its immediate courtiers. This novel gave some flavor of the academic community of Oxford University of that period. The notable Italian astronomer, Giordano Bruno, a firm believer in the Copernican heliocentric theory of the solar system, and in his own theory of the universe, has fled Italy and the Continent to find intellectual freedom in England. He finds himself in the midst of intense persecution of Catholics, although he himself has abjured that religion and has become a believer in Origenist ideas and what we'd call a humanist. As the story opens, he has come to Oxford to debate the Rector of the University on theories of the solar system, the Rector holding to the current Earth-centric model. Bruno has been recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's Head of Intelligence, as a spy. A murder of the subrector in a locked garden draws Bruno to investigate: as he says later, his motivation is to prove himself on his first mission and, of course, to see justice is done. There are two more murders in the course of the novel; each of these plus the first one is a grisly parody of the death of one of the early pre-Schism martyrs. Bruno was an engaging character and I appreciated not being overwhelmed with astronomy. I liked how the novel kept me guessing as to the perpetrator. It read quickly and was easy to read. I would have given it 4 stars, but towards the end it got too improbable and melodramatic for me. I did like how the epilogue neatly tied up any loose ends. I liked the author's use of actual historical personages such as Walsingham, Sir Philip Sidney and John Florio.
This is not a bad story at all, being a murder mystery set in Lincolns College, Oxford during the Elizabethan era and featuring Giordano Bruno – ex Catholic priest and philosopher, who arrives at Oxford alongside Philip Sydney who is accompanying and entertaining a Polish high ranging visitor to the court. For his part, Bruno has also been charged with seeking evidence of Catholicism at Oxford University. What he doesn’t bargain for, is a high body count of Fellows at the University. The story itself is pretty good and kept me interested and I did like Bruno himself, who is a very engaging character. I also particularly loved the wit of the author; there is a very dry subtle humour in the book at times which really made me smile. So why only a three star rating? The main problem for me was the slow pace of the read, at times I really did have to struggle to keep reading it, even though I was engaged in the story.
I love a good historical murder mystery, particularly one set in one of my favourite eras of history. Heretic is set during Elizabethan times, quite possibly the most popular of periods. The novel features a true life heretic monk as its amateur detective, this being Giordano Bruno who was sought by the Roman Inquisition for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. He travels to Oxford in 1576 to take part in a religious debate, but gets caught up in a series of grisly murders. The novel is described by its publishers as a ‘blockbuster historical thriller’ (think Dan Brown in tights), but it is a little slow to truly be called a thriller. It is, however, a clever and sophisticated murder mystery, with an unusual and charismatic hero. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
DNFed at 15% Two things rubbed me the wrong way in this book: - The hero's spouting beliefs that were ahead of his time without explanation: is he a scientist? Why is he so sure that that the universe is vast and there are more solar systems? - The narrator's bad Italian accent.
This much is true: Giordano Bruno did go to Oxford in the spring of 1583, in the party of the Prince Palatine Albert Laski and Sir Philip Sidney, where he did engage in a debate on the Copernican theory.
On this thread, S.J. Parks (pseudonym of journalist Stephanie Merritt) has hung her murder mystery. The book opens as Bruno flees his monastery with the Inquisition nipping at his heels. We next see him on his way to Oxford, having traveled far both geographically and socially. By now he had become quite well-known as a lecturer in mnemonics and a theologian, enjoyed the protection of Henri III, and, in fact, lived in England at the home of the French Ambassador, Michel de Castelnau. At Oxford, he is immediately confronted with the effects that religious differences in England have had there. Though the Queen sought to consolidate Protestantism there through the appointment of Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester, as chancellor, previous Marian appointments meant that there was still Catholic presence there, and concerns about treason and espionage were not entirely unjustified. Bruno, as an excommunicate, would be unsympathetic to the papist cause, yet because he was a former monk and an Italian, many English Protestants would be suspicious of him.
Bruno has not been in Oxford long when his preparations for the disputation are interrupted by horrific screams, screams that turn out to be from the sub-rector, whose throat is being torn out by an Irish wolfhound. But how did the dog get into an enclosed, locked garden? Bruno is suspicious that this is not an accident. When he finds in the man's room a journal dated using the Gregorian calendar, and in that journal a cipher in invisible writing with the phrase "ora pro nobis", he is sure that something is amiss. A second murder follows hard on the first, and Bruno is plunged into religious and political intrigue.
I will say that I am not ordinarily a fan of books that use well-known historical (or, for that matter, literary) characters as detectives. And, frankly, the part of this book relating to the actual working out of the mystery was the least satisfying. (Honestly, there really aren't a whole lot of murderers who engage in the sort of intricate "message-sending" sort of murders that occur here.) I was much more interested in the playing out of the religious and political tensions between Protestant and Catholic, English and continental European, and how that affected life in Oxford, both for town and gown.
That said, it's quite a well-written book and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys mysteries set in Elizabethan times. Me, I've plucked John Bossy's Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair off the shelf on which it has been languishing and will let you know whether Bruno really was a spy!
I give this 3.5 stars - I just couldn't when I went to rate it! Sorry. 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 it 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 universe 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.
First Sentence: The outer door was thrown open with a crash that resounded along the passage, and the floorboards shook with the purposeful marching of several pairs of feet.
Philosopher and mathematician Giordano Bruno has come to Oxford, supposedly to debate on the theories of Copernicus. However, Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster to Queen Elizabeth I, has sent him to seek out Catholics who seek to assassinate the Queen. He did not expect having to solve a series of murders where the victim has been styled to represent a Catholic martyr.
For some reason, I had in my mind that this book would be slow and the plot would drag. Oh, was I wrong. From the opening paragraph, I was involved and wanted to know more.
Parris writes with wonderful detail; I repeatedly thought that as I read. It was not that the detail distracted me, but it made the story richer. The sense of place detail is often thought of in broad, terms; here it was the small details of a room—I particularly loved the description of the bookbinder’s room—or setting; such as an almanac that contained both the prevalent calendar and the new Georgian calendar mandated by the Church for use in Catholic states, and of people. Then there was the historical detail. This was a time of great turmoil between Rome and Protestant England, where the books you read and/or the people with whom you associated could lead to expulsion from England or death. There are some very insightful statements made about religion and the divisions and hatred it can cause and the effect its power and instillation of fear has on people…”the way it makes men believe they alone are right.”
The protagonist, Giordano Bruno, was a real, historical figure. Normally, I am strongly opposed against using either actual figures or iconic fictional characters created by others, as protagonists. I must confess, I was not familiar with Bruno so, in this case, it didn’t matter to me. However, in doing research on Bruno and in spite of there being references to actual events, the character still felt fictional; a good thing in this instance and he absolutely held his own in the story. The other most interesting character to me was Sophia Underhill, daughter of the rector. She was smart, gutsy and privileged beyond what was normal for women of the time, yet still subject to the prejudices and constraints of the time. She was very well written.
Fortunately, the author did not attempt to write the dialogue in the vernacular of the period. Even though there may have been anachronisms, I did not notice any. I was too busy reading.
Finally, we come to the plot and the overall quality of writing. The former I enjoyed. The story moved right along, there were no significant slow spots; it was certainly suspenseful and gripping. The quality of writing, however, suffered a bit. There were portents and way too many large coincidences, almost to the point where I started counting them.
I very much enjoyed “Heresy,” but don’t know that I would read another book in the series.
The frame work of this whodunnit is historically accurate. Giordano Bruno, humanist, philosopher, Copernican did come under the attention of the inquisition and was excommunicated for reading Erasmus and other books on the Index. He was eventually executed by the inquisition for his unorthodox beliefs. He did spend 2 years in England and travel to Oxford. There are suggestions that he was recruited by Walsingham, Elizabeth I's master of spies. It was a time of anti-Catholicism, with Elizabeth excommunicated and papal approval given to any believer who would assassinate the queen.
But here fact and fiction part. Bruno travels to Oxford to participate in a disputation and in the hopes of finding a rare book which may have been gifted to the University. Shortly after his arrival at Trinity College one of the masters meets a horrific death when a hungry wolfhound corners him in a secluded garden. Bruno finds much to puzzle him in this accident while the Rector Underhill is anxious to gloss over inconsistancies. At the same time a student asks Bruno to intercede for his father a Catholic ex-tutor banished to France after a secret denunciation.
I found the claustrophobic paranoid atmosphere of the closed college society convincing, the plot intriguing, and sufficient pointers to the outcome which were only obvious in retrospect.
This book really blew me away - I was definitely caught up in it by the end, huddled under the blankets reading long after I should have been asleep because I just HAD to finish it. The writing style is rich and detailed, and it's clear that quite a bit of research and historical knowledge has gone into the writing of the book. I'm not an expert on this period of British history, but what I do know about it rings true, and the rest of it certainly feels true in the telling of the story. I did not see the ending coming (although I'm not one of those people who usually figures out the end first), and I was hanging on each word.
The only reason I don't give this five stars is that I do have a bit of a delicate constitution when it comes to gore, and I found some of the descriptions of the violence in the book to be a bit graphic for my tastes. I have no doubts that the punishments and executions described for traitors and heretics in the book are accurate to the history, but I wasn't quite expecting them to be as detailed and graphic as they were, and my somewhat overactive imagination definitely found them a bit on the nauseating side, particularly in the final scene. Violence and gore aside though, this is a fantastic book, and a wonderful blending of history and suspense. I'll definitely be looking out for anything else by this author.
After I began reading this book at B&N in the cafe I really got into it (it’s a page turner) and knew i was not going to have a chance to return to the store for a few weeks so i downloaded it to my nook and finished it there.
It was a great read. Excellent pacing throughout the book, interesting and suspenseful plot – set in the old world of Europe and weaving in historical details about the Catholic war on science and the Protestant war on Catholics.
Britain during the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was wracked by turmoil and intrigue rooted in doctrinal differences between the newly independent Church of England and the deeply entrenched forces of Catholicism. To root out the many conspiracies mounted by her foreign and domestic enemies, the Queen’s principal private secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-90) operated an extensive network of spies. And in S. J. Parris‘s engaging historical spy thriller, Heresy, Walsingham recruits the famed Italian philosopher and mathematician Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) to spy on the dons of Oxford University during the time he spent on the island as a fugitive from the Inquisition.
This historical spy thriller in a nutshell
In the company of his friend, Sir Philip Sidney, Bruno makes his way to the cloistered environs of the university in May 1583. There, he quickly finds Walsingham’s fears that Catholic diehards remain hidden on the faculty are in all likelihood well-founded. Then Bruno chances upon the brutal murder of a Senior Fellow of Lincoln College, where he is lodging. Although the rector of the college insists on covering up evidence that the man was murdered, since disclosure would bring ill repute to the college, Bruno insists on looking into the matter himself.
When a second, and later a third, murder turn up, a connection to the religious conflict becomes obvious. Each of the three victims was murdered in a manner modeled on that of a famous martyred Catholic saint—an imaginative departure from the facts of history that lends glamor to this historical thriller. With timely help from Philip Sidney, Bruno arrives at the truth after many harrowing encounters with the ruthless men who wish to see the Queen dead.
Religious conflict in Elizabethan England
Religious conflict roiled England throughout the sixteenth century. It was, after all, the era of the Reformation—Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517—when the newly minted Protestants fought for keeps with the established Catholic Church throughout Germany, France, and the Low Countries. But in Britain the lechery of King Henry VIII created special circumstances when, failing to secure the Pope’s dispensation for him to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry commoner Anne Boleyn, he separated the Church of England from Rome in 1534.
Already hungering for revolt, the leading Catholic families of the island grew incandescent with fury when Henry dispossessed the richest of the monasteries, seizing their treasure for his own. Catholic lords and officials gained a measure of revenge following Henry’s death and that of his young son when his daughter by Queen Catherine came to the throne. Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”) quickly instituted an orgy of retribution during her brief reign (1553-58), burning more than 280 religious dissenters at the stake. Little wonder that when her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne, tempers were at the boiling point. Surely, these circumstances can easily justify an historical spy thriller like this one.
The facts from history
A renegade monk of the Dominican order, Giordano Bruno had been on the run from the Inquisition since 1576. For seven years, he wandered through Italy, France, and Switzerland, supporting himself as a lecturer at a series of universities. In 1583 he traveled to England but left two years later, returning to Paris, where he enjoyed the patronage of King Henri III. Eventually, he turned up again in Italy and, in 1593, he was arrested for blasphemy and heresy. Following seven years of imprisonment, he was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600.
Bruno did, in fact, visit the University of Oxford in 1583 in the company of his friend Sir Philip Sidney. There, as in the novel, he came into conflict with the rector of Lincoln College, John Underhill, the future bishop of Oxford, and prominent Senior Fellows. The bone of contention was Bruno’s support for the work of Copernicus and his even more controversial insistence that the universe is infinite and abounds with life. Although he had hoped to secure a faculty position at the university, he was unable to do so.
It is also a fact that, during his two-year stay in England, Bruno did work as a spy under a pseudonym for Walsingham against Catholic conspirators. History does not record Bruno’s having solved any murders. But in so many other respects, this otherwise fanciful historical spy thriller reflects the facts as we know them.
Meticulously researched and exquisitely written, Heresy is like a boat ride down the Thames of Elizabethan England: leisurely and immersive, allowing one to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a slowly unfolding panorama. For such skillful writing, the book deserves 5 stars. However, for personal reading enjoyment, I could only give the novel 3 stars. I have to stress, this is my problem and doesn't reflect at all on the author's writing or storytelling skills, but that leisurely pace, especially in a mystery novel, is too soporific for me. There were times when I found myself skimming the page, searching for a part with more excitement, more action. I admit, I'm used to reading mystery/suspense novels in which the story moves along at breakneck speed, sometimes at the expense of atmosphere or character, where the action propels me, like a whitewater rafter heading towards Niagara Falls, over the precipice and into the thrilling climax. Heresy, however compelling in its rich characterization and lush environment, slowly unfolds its mystery like a rose bud, one delicate petal at a time, which for me became somewhat tiresome and patience-testing.
The story is based on the real-life personage of Giordano Bruno, a forward-thinking man in a backwards-thinking era, on the run from the Inquisition. Finding himself in England, he's recruited into the legion of spies which populate the court of Queen Elizabeth I, by the infamous spy-master himself, Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen's Secretary of State, in order to seek out those behind a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen. As an outsider sent to Oxford University on the pretext of participating in a debate on Copernican theory, he discovers a wealth of secrets, plots, and conspiracies which could shake the very foundation of England itself. With a thrilling mix of real and fictional characters, it's a multilayered and clever story.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm over the pace of the novel, I fully intend to re-read it. Perhaps I need to be in a more receptive mood; perhaps repeated reading will allow me to more fully appreciate the slow burn of this exceedingly well-crafted tale. I look forward to finding out.
Note: I received an ARC of this title through the Goodreads First Reads program; as such, this review is well overdue.
I always have to laugh at myself when I want to call an historical novel "impeccably researched" - like I have any clue at all how historically accurate something is! Absurd.
Still, Heresy feels pretty meticulous in its details, and it sure seems as though the author has put in the legwork in this regard. It is set in the late 1500's, with Giordano-I-Actually-Existed-And-Was-A-Pretty-Sharp-Cookie-Bruno as its protagonist. Cast out from the Catholic Church and Italy due to his heretical scientific leanings, our ex-monk studies and scholars his way through Europe and, in this story, finds himself drafted into (the protestant) Queen Elizabeth's service as a spy. There is much food for thought (or at least there should be), simply in the historical entanglement of religion and politics and the terrifying havoc it could wreak on daily life.
Going to Oxford for academic reasons, Bruno is also sent to sniff out secret Catholics. Somewhere along this line, murders start happening, and our hero is caught up right in the midst of it.
Reading more like a mystery than a thriller, but with enough action and intrigue thrown in to keep things clipping along, this was a good read. Clues abounded, and I'd call this fair play; once solutions started presenting themselves I could easily think back to the sign-posts that may have pointed to them all along. Some of the characterisation was perhaps a bit weak, in the supporting cast, anyway, which I felt made the culprit(s) stick out more than they ought, during the story.
It looks as though this is the first of a series, but it stands fine on it's own, with no huge questions left unanswered. I'd snag up the next book in the series, if I happened across it, but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to hunt it down. Solid read, though.
This book had really great potential, but lacked suspense and momentum. It takes place at Oxford during Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Former monk Giordano Bruno, who has been charged with heresy by the Catholic Church for his heliocentric views, is an intellectual guest at Oxford. He is also a reluctant agent of for the Church of England and is encouraged to report on any Catholic sympathizers who may be a threat to the queen and her realm. When murders occur in the college, Bruno takes it upon himself to try to piece together evidence to find the culprit, and this is where the story started to lose my interest. The author focused so much on the main character that the main plot driver - the mystery - didn't really unfold in a sophisticated way. Without being able to analyze other characters yourself, you simply have to wait and read on until the author reveals all in the final chapters. The initial goal of Bruno to find a missing manuscript that contains deific wisdom was intriguing but was never developed. While I liked Bruno and appreciated his intelligence and perception, there were other characters that were frustrating and stubborn. The history was good, especially its examination of religious instability at the time and the use of actual historical figures like Bruno, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Philip Sydney. However, the plot itself seemed to drag as the book went on. I wish it had left me anticipating future developments and made use of the mysticism that Bruno is known for. The premise was strong, and perhaps in another writer's hands this could have been a more solid and entertaining novel.
"Heresy" is yet another take on the current obsession with the Tudor period by publishers of popular fiction. S.J. Parris introduces us to Giordano Bruno, former catholic monk and now an itinerant academic who wanders across the universities and courts of Europe. Due to his connections with a member of the English aristocracy he is introduced to Walsingham (Elizabeth's secretary and spy master). For some reason Walsingham takes a shine to Bruno, and it's while visiting Oxford University for apparently academic purposes that he becomes embroiled in a strange case of murder.
Parris is a good stylist and writes dense, detailed text, having clearly given lots of thought to her craft; fine as long as you don't forget that the other element required is 'plot'...well for me it is. Parris seems to forget this, as she relishes the dense and descriptive detail of the various theories regarding Catholicism and Protestantism, with large doses of philosophy and monastic history thrown in for good measure. There were times when I felt as though I'd been severely beaten over the head with all her detailed background knowledge. To me, this simply slowed the story down and was a turn-off. The actual mystery takes second stage to all the descriptive babble, and isn't helped by the sub-plot of Bruno's search for some long-lost manuscript or other; after a while I couldn't bring myself to care.
I finished this book only because I was away on holiday at the time and didn't have easy access to anything else to read. I can't recommend it to others, and suggest that if it's Tudor historical fiction that you're after, stick with C.J. Sansom and Rory Clements.
Well, this book was a downer. I don't know what I expected. Anyhow, it was very interesting and very exciting. It's a fascinating part of history. Unfortunately, it's a part of history where everyone kinda sucks, hence the depressingness. But I'll definitely keep reading the series. I love Bruno, and I'm anxious to find out what happens to him, although I know from history that it's not going to end well.