Giordano Bruno

(creator: S J Parris)

S J Parris
Dr Giordano (originally Filippo) Bruno of Nola, who is the narrator throughout, was an ex-monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite.

He had entered the Dominican monastery in Naples as a novice at the age of 15 and while there had become a priest and a Doctor of Theology. He had had to run away at the age of 28 when he was threatened with the Inquisition, and, after being excommunicated, had spent the next 17 years begging "my way from city to city up the length of the Italian peninsula, snatching teaching jobs when I could find them and living in the roadside inns and cheap lodgings" before he ended up becoming a Professor of Theology at the University of Toulouse then getting "almost as high as a philosopher might dream: I was a favourite at the court of King Henry III in Paris." But finding that jealous courtiers thought that "my unique memory system was a form of black magic", realised, at the age of 35, that it was time to move on to London where he would be safer.

He comes, of course, from Italy and looks a foreigner with his dark eyes and his beard. Used to wearing the habit of a friar or the black gown of doctors and academics, he still alwa
ys dresses in black as "it saves me the trouble of thinking about it too much". He is "fastidious about clean laundry and change my linen far more often than most of the Englishmen I know." He explains that his English was less than perfect as it had been "learned largely from merchants and soldiers on my travels," yet this does not stop him speaking remarkably fluently. He even tells us that he is able to repay the hospitality of his hosts with "some lively dinner-table conversation" - and he also "knows how to flatter".

He boasts, "I always believed in my own ability not only to survive but to rise through my own efforts", and is more than ready to fight off attackers. He has what he calls his "own absurd tenacity" that combines courage with recklessness. He is proud of his "enquiring mind" and "carried an implacable belief that others would eventually come to see that I was right." He calls himself a Catholic for convenience, but really believes in "an ancient truth of which the Christian faith is one later interpretation. A truth which, if it could be properly understood in our clouded age, might enliven men instead of perpetuating these bloody divisions."

There was a real Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar who was burnt at the stake in 1600 because of his pantheist and astronomical beliefs - but, although he too went to Oxford in 1583, he never had the particular adventures described below!

S J Parris is the pseudonym for Stephanie Merritt (1974 - ). She uses the pseudonym just for her historical novels, reviewed below. Since graduating from Queens' College, Cambridge, where she developed a fascination for life in Tudor England, she has worked as a critic and feature writer for a variety of newspapers and magazines as well as radio and television. She currently lives in Surrey and writes for the Observer and the Guardian. She once wrote that she was "the author of five books and one son."

She also wrote a memoir, The Devil Within (2008), about living with a recurring severe depression that she eventually discovered to be a bipolar disorder, possibly aggravated by her experiences as a bullied schoolgirl and as an abandoned single mother, and by the teenaged loss of her originally all-encompassing evangelical faith.

Heresy (2010)
Heresy tells how ex-monk Giordano Bruno, aged 35 now, had moved to London where he is unexpectedly recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I, and is sent undercover to Oxford University on the pretext of a royal visitation. Officially Bruno is to take part in a debate on the Copernican theory of the universe; unofficially, he is to find out whatever he can about a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen. His mission is thrown off course by a series of grisly murders and he is much taken by Sophia, a spirited and beautiful young woman. As he begins to discover a pattern in these killings, he realizes that hardly anyone at Oxford is who he (or she) seems to be. The one exception is Cobbett, the kindly if often drunken college porter who eventually is suspended from his job because of helping Bruno and so saving his life - not that Bruno seems too concerned about him, although he does make some effort to save him.

As a number of the characters, including Bruno himself and his friend Sir Philip Sydney are based on real people, it makes a rather strange mix of fact and fiction, but the author knows her history and succeeds in bringing the background, grisly executions and all, to life. Other descriptions like that of the disputation about whether the earth goes round the sun, in which Bruno gets off to a bad start by introducing himself as “a proven and honoured philosopher" only to be greeted by mocking laughter, are equally convincing. The plot itself is less so, as when it is finally revealed who the priest, supposedly in hiding, had pretended to be. This certainly comes as a surprise but it is a totally unbelievable one,

Although It gets off to quite a gripping start,
after a time the pace slows down and what is a long book begins to seem a very long one, until, on page 260 Bruno is asked to investigate what seems to be a developing series of murders mimicking the deaths of such martyrs as St Ignatius and St Stephen, and things really begin to happen. He admits to the reader that it isn't really a concern for justice that motivates his search for the killer but “to prove myself to Walsingham and the Earl of Leicester, because this was my first mission, and there would be reward and preferment if I were successful." Some exciting action follows and he ends up by being pursued by both papists and anti-papists.

The author's style can sound distinctly pompous as when a desperately disturbed Sophia falls into his arms and we are told, “I could only suppose that what she wanted to say was a matter of some gravity." She tells him, "I think I may be in danger" but then he's called away before he gets round to learning her secret - and, as might be expected, she mysteriously disappears. It is a clichéd situation, as is the way that the villain of the piece tells him he's about to kill him, then goes off, leaving him with a weaker guard, thus giving him a chance of escape. And talking about "the susurration of urgent whispered conversations" when the author just means the sound of murmuring sounds pretentious.

Bruno never does discover what he had really been hoping to find: "the lost book of the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus (another real person) .... If I can trace it, I will learn the secrets necessary to rise up through the spheres by the light of divine understanding and enter the Divine Mind." But presumably that gives him something to do in the books yet to come.

Prophecy (2011)

Prophecy is set in the autumn of 1583. An astrological phenomenon seems to herald the dawn of a new age and Queen Elizabeth's throne is in peril. As Mary Stuart's supporters scheme to usurp the rightful monarch, a young maid of honour is murdered, and occult symbols are found carved into her flesh. She is also holding a small wax effigy of Queen Elizabeth, with a sewing needle protruding from its breast.

The Queen's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, calls on maverick agent Giordano Bruno (who has now been in England for six busy months) to infiltrate the plotters and secure the evidence that will condemn them to death.

Once again, the author does not hesitate to involve real people in the action, including Doctor Dee (there is a convincing description of his cavernous library), Castlenau (the French ambassador) and his (in this book) promiscuous wife Marie, Francis Throckmorton. and arch schemer Henry Howard. But the author's main interest seems to lie in the plots to replace Queen Elizabeth.The disadvantage of concentrating so much on them is that we all know what happened to Mary, Queen of Scots, so all sense of suspense is lost. In the end, all the plotting just gets rather tedious, and there are times when the book struggles to hold the interest.

Even when Bruno gets followed or finds his room searched, there is not enough sense of excitement. Indeed you have to wait until page 186 before Bruno first feels "a chill of real fear". But the way he later pretends to get drunk so that he can search Howard's library and goes on to discover his dangerous secrets, are more successful. It's a pity that it all degenerates into the familiar corny situation when, after a long discussion, his would-be murderer tells him, "I'll have to leave you here," so giving him a chance to escape.

Bruno still hopes to track down the lost book of Hermes (that "holds the secret of becoming equal with God"), so that he himself can write the book that will explain everything - but he gets little more than a glimpse of it. His own previous book, On the Shadow of Ideas, which had been published in Paris, "shows a series of concentric wheels, divided according to the seven signs of the zodiac, separated further into sub-divisions, which can be arranged in seemingly limitless configurations to embrace the sum of human knowledge" and so, properly understood, enables man "to become like God". It doesn't sound too likely.

Meanwhile he fails to report everything he has discovered to spymaster Walsingham and another maid of honour is murdered. He also fails to identify the real killer. Altogether he is more of an adventurer than a detective.

Sacrilege (2012)
Sacrilege occurs in the summer of 1584. The Protestant Prince William of Orange has been assassinated by a fanatical Catholic, and there are whispers that Queen Elizabeth will be next. Fear haunts the streets of London, and plague is driving many citizens away.

Giordano Bruno, the 36 year-old radical philosopher and spy, chooses to remain, only to find that, as too often happens in these books, someone seems to be following him. Confronting his stalker, he realizes it is Sophia, the woman he once loved but who is on the run, having been accused of murder. Bruno travels to Canterbury with Sophia disguised as a boy to help clear her name, having first obtained the permission of his employer, Sir Francis Walsingham, who had long suspected Catholic influence in that ancient centre of pilgrimage, and now wants Bruno to work to expose any such enemy plots.

Bruno soon finds that he has to find "a dead saint and a living murderer". The dead saint is Thomas Becket, whose remains may have been hidden away when his tomb was destroyed in 1538. It turns out that there is a Catholic plot to associate his body with a miraculous raising from the dead, and Bruno suspects there may be some sort of connection with recent murders of local boys. As an explanation of what is going on, this all starts to seem increasingly unlikely, and so is the arch villain who is described as "like a bird of prey. In daylight his face seemed even sharper, the skin stretched tight over the bones so that, looking at him, I had the impression of seeing his naked skull as it would appear if his grave were opened years hence." He "seemed to trail the chill of the crypt around with him, as if the summer dare not venture too close to his person." Quite without any redeeming features, he never comes alive as a very real person.

The scheming Sophia, on the other hand, is altogether more interesting. Bruno is even prepared to leave aside the "lost book of Hermes Tegmegistus", that offers "the truth of how man can become like God", to make love to her. But although he later gets the chance to present his own latest book to Queen Elizabeth, the lost book that he has been pursuing for so long, slips again out of his grasp. Both it and Sophia seem certain to reappear in his next adventure.

Even if the final explanation seems distinctly far-fetched, the plot is much more coherent and interesting than before, and the reader feels more involved, particulary when Bruno is making his three break-ins, and exploring secret rooms or underground tombs. All in all, it makes an enjoyable read. It is the best book in the series so far.

Treachery (2014)
Treachery starts in August 1585. The 37-year-old narrator, Giordano Bruno, an ex-monk and now heretic fleeing the Inquisition, is working as a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham. Along with his friend, Sir Philip Sidney, Bruno travels to Plymouth on the Queen's behalf. There they meet Sir Francis Drake (who has a "determinedly calm face .... but I can read the strain in his eyes"), who is preparing to launch a daring expedition against the Spanish, which could turn the tide of war. It is Sidney's secret plan to sail with Drake's fleet and return a hero, dragging Bruno with him to the New World.

Unfortunately for the reader, this does not happen because a murder has been discovered aboard Drake's own ship, and Bruno has to help Drake by uncovering the murderer. It seems there may be some connection with a long lost "Gospel of Judas" that "might crack the foundations of the Christian faith" and "tear the Church apart". How corny can you get? The search then takes him through Plymouth's menacing back streets and into the notorious brothel, the sinister House of Vesta, where he fails to be seduced by the young "clean" girls or boy ("I am beginning to question the wisdom of coming here," he eventually realises), and gets on the trail of a sinister book dealer with no ears who seems to be pursuing him.

All this takes a long time, and as there is more talk than action, the lengthy slow-moving story does not always hold the interest - although it does get more interesting when Lady Arden (with whom Bruno tells us, he had previously experienced "a treacherous stirring in my groin" and spent a night) gets kidnapped. But even this leads to an over-the-top melodramatic climax in which both she and Bruno seem about to get themselves blown up - although, when she "starts up a low moan which threatens to break into uncontrolled screaming", he cheers her up by telling her he loves her, "a harmless lie to ease her last minutes". But are they about to die? You can guess the answer.

The author has her own website that includes videos of her talking about her books.

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Heresy cover
The paperback cover certainly looks historical.
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