* Prices may differ from that shown
Sacrilege is the third book is S J Parris' rapidly expanding series of adventures for her Elizabethan ex-monk Giordano Bruno, and is arguably her best to date. The two previous books were good, but in Sacrilege, things really take off.
For years, if you wanted a murder-mystery set in the Tudor period C J Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series was pretty much your only choice. Now he's been joined by S J Parris' Bruno and Rory Clements' John Shakespeare. In terms of pitch and plotting, the Bruno books are probably more akin to the Shardlake novels than the Shakespeare ones, with a slightly slower pace and more thoughtful approach to unravelling a mystery.
This is not a bad thing, since it gives Parris plenty of time to concentrate on people, places and period. A huge element of success in this genre lies in establishing a convincing setting and atmosphere, populated by real feeling people. Parris' recreation of Tudor Canterbury (where much of the book is based) feels very realistic and her descriptions, although never over the top and flowery, really help to create a sense of time and place. Through her excellent prose, the sights, sounds, smells and people of Canterbury are vividly brought to life.
Unlike some historical novels, Parris chooses to develop a fictional plot, rather than one based around real events. It sees Bruno (now working as a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham) travel to Canterbury at the request of Sophia Underhill (last seen in Parris' first book, Heresy). Sophia has been accused of the murder of her husband and faces the death penalty unless her name is cleared. Once there, of course, Bruno starts to uncover a web of intrigue which seems to point towards a Catholic plot to bring down the Queen and replace her with a Catholic monarch.
This fictional plot serves the book better than one which gives a fictional character a core role in a real historical event. Although there is plenty of historical detail contained within the book, it only has to stay true to the flavour of the times, rather than sticking to specific dates and known facts. Although I enjoyed Rory Clements' Shakespeare novels, I did feel that his decision to place his character at the centre of genuine events sometimes restricted his freedom to do what he wanted to and left the plotting feeling a little artificial.
Where Parris succeeds, is that she takes the historical setting and context and weaves her own fictitious story around it. The real events affect the direction of her story in a general sense, but don't dictate the direction it must take. So, whilst events in Sacrilege are set against the backdrop of the assassination of William of Orange and a failed (but on-going) attempt by Spain and France to invade England, the main plot comes entirely from Parris' own imagination. This leaves her free to have characters act the way she wants and needs them to.
Nor does it ever feel like you are being given a history lesson. Dates, events and real historical people are used sparingly to provide context and background information. The Elizabethan astrologer Dr John Dee, for example, is mentioned several times as being Bruno's friend, but he does not actually appear in the book. Similarly, apart from a couple of brief appearances, neither Sir Philip Sidney, nor Francis Walsingham (both key figures in the Elizabethan Court) have much of a role. This leaves Parris free to play with her own characters.
Crucially, the plot is an excellent one. Although it starts off relatively simple, Parris soon starts to pile mystery upon intrigue upon enigma. She compounds this by instilling a sense of paranoia in both the author and her lead character (Bruno is unsure who he can trust and who is spying on whom and this unease transfers itself to the reader.) Although the plot becomes quite layered at times, it never becomes confusing and the chain of events, who Bruno is investigating and why are always clear. Of course, the plot is not straightforward and there are plenty of red herrings to deflect the reader's suspicions and this is done expertly.
Indeed, this is probably the area was Sacrilege is noticeably better than Parris' earlier two books. Whilst they were enjoyable, it was actually quite easy to correctly identify the guilty party. This is not the case here. There are a number of potential suspects with the opportunity and motive to murder the unfortunate victims and Parris regularly (and skilfully) shifts the focus so that first one appears to be guilty, then another. Doing this, Parris really holds the attention of the reader and weaves a skilful plot which leaves the reader guessing right up until the very end. The ending for this one certainly caught me by surprise.
The other thing which Parris works into her plot successfully is a real sense of danger. When reading the Shardlake or Shakespeare books, I am never in any doubt that they will survive, no matter how grim their situation is. There were times in Sacrilege when I genuinely did fear for the safety of Bruno. This, of course, only increases the compulsion to keep reading so that you can find out how it all ends. As such, even when Parris relies on a slightly dubious historical fact to get Bruno out of trouble, you don't mind too much.
If there is a criticism it's that Parris tends to write in fairly long chapters and fairly lengthy sections. If you're the type of person that only has the chance to read in short bursts, then Sacrilege can sometimes be a little annoying. There are relatively few breaks in the text that act as convenient stopping point, so you often find yourself having to break artificially in the middle of a much longer passage. This is a minor gripe, but in these busy days when time to read is often limited, I tend to like authors who give the reader every help they can!
With a slew of recent books all set in the same era and involving many of the same historical characters, there is a danger that the market may become over-saturated. As long as S J Parris continues turning out books of this quality, that day is still a long way off. It's well worth the £5 it will cost for the hardback edition (about £6 for the Kindle version), as this is a book that you will want to keep and read again.
S J Parris
Harper Collins, 2012
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012