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by S J Parris
Harper, April 2010
386 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0007317662

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As a general rule, I am not overly fond of historical novels, so was somewhat bemused to find this work on my desk awaiting to be read. The cover attracted me (and no, I don't usually judge a book by its cover) so I opened it and began reading. I am glad I did. It is the story of part of the life of Giordano Bruno, a sometime monk who managed to get himself into a fatal number of disagreements with the authorities of his time.

The book opens to disclose Bruno on the loo, reading. He is rooted out from this sanctuary and attempts, unsuccessfully, to hide his copy of Erasmus inside the long drop. I was surprised, later, to read that this incident was likely to be true. In any case, the incident prompts Bruno to desert his monastery and set out on his travels.

Whilst adventuring, Bruno manages to acquire some powerful friends, including Sir Philip Sidney, a happy circumstance that aids him when he stays at Oxford. Sidney, in fact, has a heavy purse for Bruno, saying it is from Sir Francis Walsingham in payment for Bruno's executing his commission.

Bruno is, officially, in Oxford in order to engage in a disputation concerning the workings of the heavens, but his task for Walsingham is, of course, his prime concern. In fact, Walsingham wishes to know about the Catholics who may still be practising in Oxford but Bruno is very interested in acquiring a specific book which he suspects may be held in Oxford.

Bruno is lodged in Lincoln College and meets the Rector, Doctor Underhill, as well as the Rector's daughter, the beautiful but, sadly, educated Sophia. Education for women, in Elizabethan times, was not considered an advantage in marriage.

Shortly after Bruno's arrival, the first murder occurs. An academic is set upon by a starved hunting dog. Then Sidney draws Bruno's attention to a death as described in a work by Foxe. A second murder, of yet another don, bears a resemblance, again, to something in the work of Foxe.

This is an intriguing novel. I would think the author had to indulge in considerable research in order to produce such a work. Fortunately, she has not attempted to impose horribly twee language in an attempt to ape the manner of speech of the time. Mind, I did not examine the language to the extent of attempting to root out possible archaisms, but just enjoyed the way the tale flowed. I also enjoyed Parris' description of the life and conditions obtaining at the time.

I thought the characterisation to be well done and the inclusion of so much of the spying that characterised the times convincing. The murders themselves were, perhaps, the least plausible aspect of the book, but once the reader accepts that (and what is an appreciation of fiction other than a willing suspension of disbelief?) appreciation follows.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, March 2010

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