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My history teacher at school would be stunned to see the number of historical fiction books I've been reading recently. He would be even more surprised to discover that I've mostly enjoyed them. Whilst I've always loved reading, history was a subject for which I showed great ineptitude and disinterest in my younger years. How times change.
Strangely for a historical novel, ''Imprimatur'' starts in 2040, with a letter from a Bishop to a contact in the Vatican, discussing how the manuscript we are about to read came into being. The story is presented as the writings of a young apprentice to a Roman inn during a week in September 1683, concerning what befell him and the city and how it relates to the Pope.
It is a troubling time in Rome, with the forces of Catholic Europe under siege from the infidel Turks, who are currently attempting to take Vienna before marching on Italy. Things aren't great at the inn, either, as an elderly guest dies suddenly one morning. The authorities fear the plague and put the inn under quarantine, but a doctor who happens to be staying there suspects the man was poisoned, which means all the guests could be locked away with a murderer. Worse is to follow, as accidents, genuine illnesses and a theft takes place. Seeking to unravel events, the mysterious Abbot Melani enlists the apprentice's help. Their investigations lead them into some unexpected places, including the tunnels underneath the city.
This is a fairly slow moving story, although it does pick up a little towards the end. This isn't usually the kind of thing I'd enjoy, but there are so many layers to the mystery that it's difficult not to become caught up in it. There are secrets and lies all over the place and it seems that every character in a large cast has something to hide. Nothing it what it seems and just when I thought I had a handle on things, something changed and I was no wiser than before.
The characterisation certainly helps with this, as making the narrator a young, naive apprentice means he's frequently confused, but usually involved. This is perfectly expressed through the writing, helping the reader feel largely off balance throughout. Our apprentice is lied to, pushed around, derided and coerced and his confusion comes across perfectly. The other characters, seen through his eyes, are also wonderfully drawn. Each has a distinctive personality and motivation and the apprentice feels differently about all of them. It is a sizeable cast, particularly for quite an enclosed space, but you never get them mixed up, such is the skill behind the writing here.
The plotting and the interests of all the characters are so wide ranging that there is something here to interest nearly everyone. There is the setting for the historians; plenty of intrigue and political manoeuvring for the politics fans; plenty of music and poetry for the artistic; as well as plenty of action and mystery for fans of those genres. Oh, and a pretty young girl for me. Indeed, for people who feel this sounds a little too heavy going, there is even some welcome comic relief provided by a couple of the lesser characters; the ''corpisantari'' Ugonio and Ciacconio, who had me chuckling every time they opened their mouths.
If there is a downside, it's in the way the story attempts to justify itself. Having built up to a great end, the story is followed by a collection of rather dusty historical writing as the Bishop tells his friend all the research he's done in proving that this story may well be true. This may be fascinating for the historian, especially if it is all accurate, but for the casual reader it felt like the story was trying to make itself more important than it was. It is a shame, as the story was a wonderful read and had the book ended with the story, I would have been happier, but by stretching out, it lost some of the interest it had done so well to hold up until then. In this regard, the book reminded me of William Goldman's ''The Princess Bride'', where once again the story was far better than the story behind the story.
Given the size and what seemed, at first glance, to be quite a heavy subject matter, I didn't expect to enjoy the story as much as I did. Although it's quite slow paced until late on, it's put together in intricate layers which means there's always something happening and often something new. Allied with some decent writing and an incredibly well drawn cast of characters, this is a wonderful read, especially if you don't mind the detailed history at the end. In many respects, I feel much the same about this book as I did about Susanna Clarke's ''Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell'', in that I may not have expected to enjoy it before I started, but I loved it by the time I got to the end. It may be quite heavy going in places, but it's well worth the effort and from as little as £2.72 from the Amazon Marketplace, it's pretty good value as well.
This is a slightly amended version of a review that has previously appeared under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk