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S. J. Parris – Heresy

March 22, 2010

29. Heresy by S. J. Parris (2010)

Length: 355 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Started: 13 March 2010
Finished: 16 March 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I’ve been slowly getting more into mysteries/thrillers recently, and I love historical fiction, so this sounded like a good match.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 13 February 2010.

It’s hard to find the
hidden Catholics when folks keep
dying around you.

Summary: Giordano Bruno is an ex-monk, excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his heretical views on the nature of the universe. After fleeing Italy one step ahead of the Inquisition, he spent years on the run throughout Europe, teaching and debating, before finding himself in England in 1583. He is set to visit Oxford to debate the rector of Lincoln College, but before he leaves, he is recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s Intelligence master, to sniff out any Catholic conspirators who may be planning to overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. However, Bruno barely has time to settle in at Oxford, let alone make any investigations, before the college fellows begin dying in a series of brutal murders. Everyone has seems to have a secret, and Bruno suspects that there is something deeper going on – and he’s determined to find out what before the death toll can climb any higher.

Review: Heresy contained just about everything I could want from a historical thriller: an interesting mystery set in a relevant historical context, a fast pace that kept me turning pages even in my dissertation-induced attention-deprived state, and an ample number of red herrings with a satisfying but non-obvious resolution, all wrapped around a core of historical facts. Giordano Bruno was real, and he did visit Oxford in 1583 to debate Copernican theory with the rector of Lincoln college. Many of the other characters, the murders, and Bruno’s role as a de facto detective are fictitious, but are well-integrated with what we know from the historical records.

I did have a few problems with the book, too, although they weren’t enough to majorly affect my enjoyment. For starters, we’re introduced to a lot of Oxford Fellows very quickly, and they’re not all characterized well enough to be immediately distinguishable by name later on. The tone also got a little too modern at times, and while that probably helped keep the book a quick read, there were some anachronisms in dialogue and tone that I found a little distracting. There was also a fair amount of emphasis put on certain elements (such as Bruno’s search for arcane occult texts) that didn’t pan out to much. Overall, though, I had a lot of fun with this book; while I haven’t read a huge number of historical thrillers to compare, I thought Heresy was a well-put-together example of the genre, and definitely worth my time. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Heresy was essentially everything I was hoping for but failed to get from The Name of the Rose. And, while I don’t think that the two works are comparable in scope or intent, if (like me) your favorite parts of Eco’s work were the murder mystery and the banned books and the skulking around a medieval monastery, you’ll probably find Heresy as much fun as I did. Otherwise, I think fans of historical fiction who enjoy mysteries or are looking for a break from “royal scandals and intrigue” novels will enjoy this book as well.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Historical Novels, Utter Randomonium, We Be Reading
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The outer door was thrown open with a crash that resounded along the passage and the floorboards shook with the purposeful marching of several pairs of feet.

Cover Thoughts: Well, my ARC has a cover that looks like old books or parchment, so the actual cover looks strange without the warm tones, but I like it well enough.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 7: “We were on the first floor of the building, but about six feet below the window the sloping roof of the lay brothers’ reredorter jutted out enough for me to land on if I judged the fall carefully; from there I could edge my way down a buttress and, assuming I could make it across the garden without being seen, I could climb the outside wall of the monastery and disappear into the streets of Naples under cover of darkness.” – a communal latrine for the monks in a medieval Western European monastery.
  • p. 39: “We entered the city through the east gate, a small barbican in the high walls that encircled the main body of the town, and as we passed under its battlements so a concert of musicians struck up, their instruments sounding bravely through the noise of rain and wind.” – A tower or other fortification on the approach to a castle or town, especially one at a gate or drawbridge.
  • p. 53: “Fortunately, one was provided by the arrival of servants bearing plates laden with the first course, boiled capons with damsons and calves’ foot jelly accompanied by a good claret.” – also called damson plum. the small, dark-blue or purple fruit of a plum, Prunus insititia, of the rose family, introduced into Europe from Asia Minor.
  • p. 108: “I was about to rise and take my leave when a great gale of laughter and chatter erupted from behind us as the tap room door opened to admit a group of four tall young men, all dressed expensively in jerkins of buff leather, silk peasecod doublets and short slashed breeches to show off their legs in fine silk stockings, all sporting bright starched ruffs above their collars and short velvet cloaks over one shoulder.” – the front of a 16th-century doublet, quilted or stuffed to form a pointed bulge over the stomach and abdomen.
  • p. 136: ““Besides, I must confess that I have never attempted to use this practical magic – my interest has always been in the hieratic, intellectual element.”” – of or pertaining to priests or the priesthood; sacerdotal; priestly.
  • p. 143: “By the door I noticed a holy water stoup, long dry, as we passed into a modest, limewashed room with a wooden-beamed roof, the floor strewn with rushes.” – a basin for holy water, as at the entrance of a church.
  • p. 235: “Along the bench where ______ now stood, rubbing his hands and looking from me to _______ with an expression of greedy anticipation, examples of different types of binding and format were ranged, from the old-fashioned wooden boards encased in calfskin that would keep a parchment manuscript from cockling, to the newer Paris bindings of double paste-board for lighter books of paper, that needed no brass clasps but were tied together with leather thongs or ribbons.” – to contract into wrinkles or waves; pucker.
  • p. 266: “__________ took the Host from a small brass pyx and after he had elevated it and drunk from the chalice, he turned to face the congregation.” – the box or vessel in which the reserved Eucharist or Host is kept.

**All quotes are from an advance edition and may not reflect the final published text.**

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 8:51 am

    I just saw this in someone’s mailbox and I was wondering about it. It sounds like something I would enjoy!

  2. March 22, 2010 2:38 pm

    Wow, I didn’t realize this book wasn’t out yet. I feel like I’ve been hearing about it everywhere. I’ve been reluctant to read it because my last attempt at a historical mystery story did not go well (it was also by an author with initials for a first name and a one-word title, so you see how I am squeamish). :P

    • March 24, 2010 9:04 am

      Jenny – I think it came out earlier this month? Anyways, while I enjoyed it, it’s not a “OMG you must go read this Right Now” kind of recommendation, so I think it will keep until you can get the bad taste of your previous read out of your mouth. :)

  3. March 22, 2010 4:25 pm

    Glad you liked this! I have a copy to read and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve also been digging mysteries lately.

    • March 24, 2010 9:05 am

      Jen – I’m not quite ready to dive head-first full-time into the crime novel genre, but some occasional diversifying has been fun.

  4. March 22, 2010 5:43 pm

    I enjoyed this, too. My reactions were very similar to yours – I’ve reviewed it at, and there’s an interview with the author on my blog. Giordano Bruno was one of the most interesting persons of his time, I think, so I’m looking forward to the sequels.

    • March 24, 2010 9:08 am

      Margaret – Added your link, thanks!

      • March 24, 2010 10:57 am

        Thanks for the link. Hope you’ll enjoy doing some browsing!

  5. March 23, 2010 4:48 pm

    I’m a big historical fiction fan and this one looks like it’ll be going on my to-read list.

  6. March 27, 2010 10:58 pm

    I’ve been getting into historical novels recently and this one sounds interesting. Giordano Bruno as the protagonist? What fun.

    • March 30, 2010 8:30 am

      Gavin – I’ll admit to not knowing anything about Bruno before I started, so I don’t know if the portrayal of him is accurate/fair… but he was an interesting narrator, for sure.

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