Set in the late 16th century, SJ Parris’s Heresy follows the travails of a novice English spy, Giordano Bruno, on his first mission – to hunt out a Catholic conspiracy at Oxford.
The backdrop to the action is beautifully told, immersing the reader in a plausible version of the 16th century, with just enough unpleasant gore to give an authentic feel to an era of horrors without lapsing into horror for the sake of horror.
Bruno himself is a real figure (and the subject of a highly acclaimed historical study by one of my lecturers at university – Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair). Sufficiently little is known about Bruno’s actual life that the events of the book do not feel like they are bending history unduly. Indeed, it is more a case that much care seems to have been taken to make events and characters as plausible as possible within the confines of creating a multi-murder mystery.
The story is told through the eyes of Bruno and he quite often pauses to recount key plot points or questions to others (or even to himself). Although at times this feels a little crudely forced, it is a smart way to ensure the reader keeps up with the complexity of the plot (and means it works particularly well as an audiobook where your concentration may come and go a little).
But as with this device, other parts of the book feel like they are written with just a little too much cliched inexperience. Bruno, for example, keeps on just happening to spot a scrap of evidence out of the corner of his eye which no-one else had seen.
Those are but minor flaws however in what is a great book that lives up to the quote on the cover: “it has everything – intrigue, mystery and excellent history”.
If you like this, you might also be interested in CJ Sansom’s Dominion.