The year is 1583, and tensions are simmering within Elizabeth's glorious realm. While the queen claims not to want a window into people's souls, her spymaster, Francis Walsingham, furtively roots out Catholic conspirators who might seek to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. Such is the setting for this engaging and aptly-titled historical thriller, and Giordano Bruno proves an inspired choice for protagonist. An excommunicate former monk forced to flee the Inquisition in Italy for his heretical beliefs in heliocentrism – the earth orbiting the sun, rather than the other way around – he is the ultimate outsider, a man who works toward religious tolerance and scientific breakthroughs in a world that gives mere lip service to both.
As the novel gets underway, Bruno is accompanying his good friend, Sir Philip Sidney, and a visiting Polish dignitary on the royal court's visitation to Oxford. He has three separate missions, each more veiled than the other: participate in a debate on Copernican theory with Doctor John Underhill, rector at Oxford's Lincoln College; investigate Catholic conspiracies on Walsingham's behalf; and follow the trail of a forbidden Hermetic text with dangerous repercussions for Christianity. As if the latter two don't involve enough personal risk, Bruno gets unexpectedly swept into a murder investigation when one of the university fellows is found brutally killed. It soon becomes clear that the motive is something other than academic rivalry turned deadly. Signs hint at the dead man's connection to matters much more secretive. When the killer strikes again, Doctor Underhill grows increasingly worried about bad publicity and possible loss of funding; these concern him much more than his beautiful, troubled daughter. Bruno agrees to look into the murders officially on his behalf. As he proceeds, he comes to understand the many different meanings and levels of heresy.
Parris (pseudonym for British journalist Stephanie Merritt) does a splendid job illustrating the strong undercurrents of religious strife in late 16th-century England, a land still reeling from the multiple changes in official religion over the previous half-century. Bruno speaks modern English like a native – no twisy-twasery here – and approaches his investigations with determination, Italian self-confidence, and old-fashioned common sense. His sharp, occasionally cheeky narration brightens the otherwise somber atmosphere (not every historical novel begins in a privy!). As the scenes switch between the College's ornate stone buildings and the dimly lit tap-rooms of Oxford proper, Parris gives a detailed and panoramic look at a 16th-century university city and an unusual form of town-gown relations. Her complex, tightly constructed plotline provides ample suspense and multiple surprises, and the wrenching finale suits the uneasy tenor of the times.
With its convincingly dark Tudor setting and themes of political conspiracies and religious repression, there are obvious comparisons to be made to C.J. Sansom's Shardlake novels, set during Henry VIII's reign. Fans of the latter should appreciate Parris's debut. Bruno's perspective allows for an intriguing look at religion and science in the Elizabethan era, though unlike Shardlake, his manner is hardly curmudgeonly. Part of the way the solution unravels is a bit too simplistic, though that’s a very minor issue. For those who know their history (or wish to google it), familiarity with Bruno's eventual fate adds additional meaning and pathos to the tone of this thoroughly entertaining novel.
S.J. Parris's Heresy will be published on February 23, 2010 by Doubleday at $25.95 (hardcover, 355pp). It will also appear from HarperCollins UK on 4th March at £12.99.