Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

by S.J. Parris
2010 Doubleday
Softcover Edition; 448 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/Murder Mystery
Source: Local Library

4 / 5 Stars

Summary (Press Release)
Giardano 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.

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.

My Thoughts
In 1576, Giordano Bruno was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his heretical beliefs and for reading books that were forbidden by the Catholic Church.  In an attempt to avoid the Inquisition, he fled the only place he had known for thirteen years, and lived on the streets, avoiding those who were searching for him for many years.  When next we see Bruno in 1583, he had managed to become a favourite of King Henri III and good friends with Sir Sydney Philip of London, a personnage with many well-connected friends at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.  With the court swirling with rumours of assassination attempts by Mary Queen of Scots, and herself surrounded constantly by threats from France and Scotland, it came as little surprise that Walsingham would call upon Bruno to help him fight the religious threat against the royal personnage.  Thinking about the wealth he could gain, and the influence at court, Bruno agreed to help Walsingham with his mission, to help find papists aiding and abetting others to overthrow her, although he did have an ulterior purpose in mind.  Bruno had been searching for a missing book for many years that was last thought to be at Oxford University, the site of Bruno's mission.

Oxford University was the perfect setting for a murder mystery.  A tightly-knit community of scholars, the author was able to show how even such a community shadowed the outside world with its religious intrigues and many layers of truths.  John Underhill, the current rector of the university, is shocked when a series of grisly murders upsets his scholarly life.  The author cleverly shows how the religious wars impact even a quiet scholarly community and that you can trust no one.  I was amazed at the twists and turns of the plot, at the deep layers of the characters, and how when I thought I had things figured out, everything got turned upside down.  I did find the book somewhat too wordy however, and sometimes skipped forward to the action.  And if you are not familiar with some of the historical events, you might have a little difficulty understanding some of the ramifications of the some of the events.

Bruno was an enjoyable and intriguing character.  And the knowledge that he actually existed has intrigued me even more; I will be spending some time looking him up and reading more about him.   He was charming, graceful, thoughtful, open-minded, highly intelligent, and very admiring of others.  At the same time, he was a flawed character and made many mistakes, something which I liked.  I prefer my heroes to make mistakes as it makes them seem more human and more personable.  I especially found Bruno's personal conflict to be interesting.  When he first undertook the mission, he didn't realize how difficult it would be to turn people in to Walsingham as suspected papists and the resulting effects of his actions.  Once that realization hit, he became exceedingly conflicted as he understood he could be sending people he knew and cared about to face torture, death, and/or exile.  Suddenly, working for Walsingham didn't seem as appealing.  Sophia Underhill was another complex character that I greatly admired, although she was a tragic character.  Women certainly did not have it very easy during this time period, and reading about Sophia's fate certainly made me grateful that I live in the time period that I do.  I also really liked the bookseller names Jenkes, although he is certainly not a nice person.  I have to admire his courage to survive in a world as turbulent as the one he lived in.

Heresy was an enjoyable book and I admire it for its blunt look at life the way it was during the sixteenth century.  There are moments that are uncomfortable for the reader, some of the execution scenes are pretty graphic and some of the death scenes are grisly, but the book gives the reader a great view of what life what like during this time period.  The religious wars definitely caused a lot of problems and tore families apart.  One has to admire the courage of people who stood up for their beliefs knowing that torture and death awaiting them.   While the mystery towards the second half of the novel was somewhat sketchy, there is certainly a lot in this book that was enjoyable.  S.J. Parris certainly left the book open to the possibility of a sequel, and I would definitely read another book by this author.


  1. I think I would love this book - I for some reason always find myself attracted to books that make me uncomfortable.
    Thanks for the great, in depth review!

  2. I think this would be a good winter read for me. Thanks for the great review!