Heresy by S.J. Parris

17 August, 2012

One of my favourite historical figures from the history of science is Giordano Bruno and I’ve been very curious about how he would feature in S.J. Parris’ historical mystery, Heresy, featuring the excommunicated Italian monk and philosopher. The thing about hystorical mysteries is that apart from engaging the reader with a nifty mystery, the historical facts and the feel of the period also have to be spot on. I’m not too pedantic about occasional errors (unless they are glaring but this obviously depends on your area of expertise) but Parris does a very good job on getting the details right.

In Heresy, the first book in the series, we are introduced to Giordano Bruno who, having managed to evade the Inquistion in Europe and in the process acquiring some hefty academic credentials, has crossed the sea to Elizabethan England where he comes to the notice of Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Having befriended Sir Philip Sidney in Italy, the two travel to Oxford on a secret mission to rout out any Catholic insurgents who may be brewing trouble. Bruno is also on the hunt for the lost volume of Hermes Trismegistus’ heretical work on the infinite universe which he has been searching for a long time and which he suspects may lie hidden in Oxford.

But as soon as they arrive, a senior Fellow of Lincoln College is found mauled to death in the garden echoing a ghastly scene described in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a book greatly valued by the Rector of Lincoln College. As the body count rises in increasingly grotesque scenarios, Bruno finds that secrets abound in this small college from furtive papists to forbidden love. When he is distracted by the rector’s beautiful and headstrong daughter, Sophia, a clever young woman with a mind of her own, Bruno finds himself torn as his beliefs are tested. With no shortage of suspects, Bruno must find the killer, uncover any Catholic plots that threatens England’s peace and try and find the book that has drawn him to this distant land. And can he do so without getting into too much trouble? You’ll have to read on to find out.

As you may already know, I love reading about science in a historical context and wrapped in a mystery it’s just something I can’t resist. Giordano Bruno is a fascinating figure and I’m not surprised that Parris chose him as the lead character in her novel. A heretic, magician and philosopher who is also charming to the ladies. What’s not to like? Parris’ portrayal is sympathetic, one where you see Bruno the man who struggles with his ethical and religious beliefs. As someone who was once a priest and who has had to become an ordinary man again, his struggles and worries as a man living on his wits, attempting to carve a career and shielding himself from the inevitable heretical accusations, especially in England where recent history has pitted Catholics and Protestants against each other in the most horrendous way, is fascinating indeed.

Parris draws on the paranoia and claustrophobia of small town England, especially Oxford where there is a cosmopolitan mixture of people and a dangerous proliferation of ideas and where memories are especially long. And in a place where spies are everywhere and everyone has something to protect, it’s only a matter of time before passions are aroused and the killings begin.

I really enjoyed Heresy and will be reading more from the series. The mystery was pretty decent and although not as weighty and sombre as C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, Parris’ Giordano Bruno is tantalising enough for me to want to know more.

3 Responses to “Heresy by S.J. Parris”

  1. aartichapati Says:

    I get Parris confused with Sansom because of the initials, I think, and the fact that both write historical mysteries. But I’m glad that Parris stands well enough on his/her own, too!

  2. Teresa Says:

    I have exactly the same problem as Aarti! And then when you said Heresy was first in the series, I got all confused because I thought Dissolution was first, lol. I haven’t read either… yet.

  3. Mystica Says:

    A new book for me and one I would like to read myself. Thanks for the review.

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