Tuesday, September 18, 2018

S.J. Parris, Heresy

S.J. Parris, Heresy
© 2010 Stephanie Merritt
Random House/Anchor Books
ISBN 978-0-7679-3252-3

Doctor (of philosophy) Giordano Bruno (an excommunicated Catholic priest) has arrived in Oxford (accompanying Sir Philip Sidney and as an undercover spy for Walshingham) in May 1583.  One of his purposes is to meet and get to know the dons of Oxford and to discuss philosophy with them, especially the meaning of Copernicus’s view of the cosmos (and his extension of it).  But he is also there to help uncover whatever lingering Catholic influence may remain at the University.  (He’s also hoping to find a copy of what may be a proscribed—both by the Catholics and by the Church of England –book.) He is the guest of the Rector of Lincoln College.

Parris establishes the setting very well, and deals (so far as I can tell) exceptionally well with the religious aspects of the late 16th century, including the persecution of the remnants of the old faith and its lingering presence in England.  Bruno has not been long in Oxford when one of the dons is killed by a feral dog in a locked garden of the college (one of the students manages to kill the dog with a well-aimed arrow).  Bruno recognizes the manner of death as mirroring the martyrdom Ignatius, and thinks that it is important.  The Rector, Dr. Underhill is disinclined to see the death as anything other than an accident.  But this is just the first of a series of deaths that seem to be based on the deaths of early leaders of the Catholic church.

The Fellows of Lincoln College are an odd assortment (and we really learn very little about their role as teachers), but it seems that several of them, while professing loyalty to the Church of England are either secretly or nor so secretly adherents of Catholicism. 

Bruno’s investigations proceed slowly, and, while much that happens confirms his belief in the motives behind the murders, he does not seem to be getting very close to identifying the party or parties responsible.  And, while this is all going on, he becomes very strongly attracted to the Rector’s daughter Sophia.

This is really a fairly remarkable book.  The setting and the events are strongly presented and every person in the book seems to act in accordance with their characters as we know them.  It’s the first of a now 5-book series, in all of which Bruno (and so far as I can tell) Sophia are involved in additional situations revolving around the religious conflicts in England.  That’s not to say this is a flawless book.  For one thing, it seems to be raining almost incessantly (and this website--https://www.booty.org.uk/booty.weather/climate/1500_1599.htm

--suggests that 1583 was a drought year).  Also, there are what appear to be the occasional anachronism (the one that stood out to me was a mention, by Bruno in his narrative, of being overly stimulated by a rush of adrenaline (I really thought this was a significant error, but it turns out the adrenal gland was identified in the 1560s, although adrenaline and its affects were not isolated until the 1890s). 

But those issues are all of little importance, really.  Heresy is a fine beginning to the series, and I am looking forward to reading the subsequent books.

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