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Heresy by S. J. Parris

Heresy (2011)

by S. J. Parris

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Of all the historical figures one might pick to be the protagonist in a medieval thriller, Giordano Bruno is not the name that would have first come to mind. However, since his life on the run from the Catholic Inquisition was something of a thrill a minute, perhaps he is not so unlikely after all.

S.J. Parris's Heresy opens with Bruno at age 28, having to escape from his Domenican monastery in Naples or face the Inquisition. His crime: reading forbidden books. Some seven years later, he turns up in London, having most recently been in residence at the court of Henri III of France as tutor and philosophe du jour. As an excommunicated monk, he is enlisted on behalf of Queen Elizabeth to serve as a de facto spy to help ferret out suspected papists, many of whom are believed to be a threat to the life and realm of the Queen. The papal bull Regnans in Excelsis ("reigning on high") of Pius V declared Elizabeth to be a heretic and released all her subjects from any allegiance to her and excommunicated any that obeyed her orders. It further encouraged overthrow of Elizabeth. Thus, the lingering presence of Catholicism in England was seen and treated as a real threat.

Bruno goes to Oxford in the company of poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney for the purpose of engaging in a disputation with one of the college rectors, but while a guest at the college, a brutal murder takes place, to be followed by two more, which have anti-Catholic implications. Bruno is one of the first to arrive at the scene of the crime, and he is recruited on the quiet to help find out who the killer is. Many intrigues follow and suspicion is cast far and wide. When the guilty party is finally unmasked, it is unexpected and yet certain clues were there all the time.

As a bit of well written escapist reading with a historical setting Heresy is not bad although I would not call it a page turner until the last quarter of the book. Parris has written three more Bruno thrillers, so if this one intrigues, there is more available to whet the appetite. ( )
1 vote Poquette | Mar 26, 2015 |
This story takes place at Oxford university in 1583. The story is told by Giordano Bruno of Nola in Italy. He is an excommunicated monk who escaped from his monastery prior to being tried for heresy for reading forbidden materials. After wandering the courts of Europe for 7 years he ends up at Oxford university as a guest of a friend of the Earl of Leicester. He is scheduled to debate his philosophy on the orbit of the planets in direct conflict with the beliefs of the day with the Rector Underhill. In the meantime, he becomes a spy for Walsingham, the chief spy for Elizabeth I. He is to uncover and report on secret Catholics who may be hiding among the academics. Since Henry VIII, the religious wars between the Church and the throne have become very bloody.
This is a very good story told by Bruno as he investigates several murders at Oxford and then his becomes at risk because of his curiosity. The story is very well told. Note: The torture of "heretics" is hard to stomach. ( )
  MaggieFlo | Aug 28, 2014 |
This book introduces the character of Giordano Bruno, an excommunicated Italian monk who ends up in Elizabethan England under the protection of the French King Henri II and is recruited by Francis Walsingham as a spy. Bruno travels to Oxford to participate in a debate on the structure of the Universe and in search of a secret book, but also to spy on recalcitrant Catholics in this strictly Protestant land. He is drawn into solving a series of brutal murders and uncovering a secret ring of Catholic sympathisers.

Parris draws us in with her fine depiction of Elizabethan life and very clearly describes the religious hysteria of the times. Bruno is a well-rounded character who displays sufficient strengths, weaknesses and internal conflicts to be utterly believable and for us to root for him as the story unfolds. Other characters are strongly drawn and we often find ourselves sympathising as we condemn.

This is excellent both as an historical picture and as a driven thriller. ( )
  pierthinker | Aug 26, 2014 |
Heresy is a historical novel that follows a period in the life of Giordano Bruno, an ex-monk who has developed a reputation as a philosopher and gained status through his relationship with King Henri III of France. This book covers a time he spent at Oxford in England. He's been brought to the university to debate with the head of the school, Rector Underhill. But while Bruno is at Oxford a number of brutal murders occur and he is recruited by Underhill to look into the crimes.

The book is interesting because it covers the period in English history after the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, but does not look at that time through the point of view of the monarchy. Instead it focuses on how the conflict between the two churches affects the students and faculty at Oxford. There's violence, deception, and quite a few compromised values.

The problem with putting historical characters in a fictional environment is that the author has to develop personalities for the characters while remaining true to the real people. In this case, the characters suffer because they lack strong emotions. Everyone in the book, with the exception of Bruno and his well-connected friend, Philip Sydney, seems to be one dimensional and self-serving. This was a time when people believed that choosing the wrong side would be the same as denying God. Yet there was little passion shown in their choices. The rector has a beautiful daughter named Sophia whom everyone wants to protect, but the only romantic relationship is talked about rather than shown and also lacks passion.

The decisions the characters make often seem abrupt and without rationalization. There's a gate keeper who helps Bruno without any explanation as to why he's decided to trust a stranger over the people he knows and works for. And Rector Underhill's decision to ask Bruno to investigate the crimes also seems out of the blue.

Yet, despite the issues I mentioned, I enjoyed the novel. The subject matter is fascinating and the mystery works well. It's a good read for people who enjoy historical fiction.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions ( )
  SteveLindahl | May 18, 2014 |
I found this book very disappointing. It could have been so good!

The basic premise is certainly enticing. Giordano Bruno is a prime example of the Renaissance Man - scientist, literary lion and a dab hand with a dagger should the need arise, he is also a former, or more accurately, a disgraced and unfrocked monk ho has pulled off the startling feat of being excommunicated by the Catholic church and deemed a heretic by the Calvinists. Having fled from his monastery to escape the Inquisition he wends his worried way through Europe, ending up in England. There he is recruited by Queen Elizabeth's feted spymaster Lord Walsingham.

All this sets a scene crying out for a rattling good story, and that is where Parris lets us down. The novel is far too long and moves with geological slowness - I have seen more action from the concrete cows that abound around Milton Keynes. When we first meet Bruno he is hiding in a monastic privy into which he throws the proscribed tome that he was reading. If I had had access to a suitably accommodating cludgie beyond risk of blockage I would have followed his example with this one! ( )
  Eyejaybee | Feb 15, 2014 |
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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.
Playing politics with the lives of others was part of the path to advancement, but that, as I was just beginning to understand, was the real heresy.
I was caught reading Erasmus in the privy.
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Fugitive Italian monk Giordano Bruno, on the run from the Holy Roman Inquisition in 1583, is recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster for Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, to infiltrate the underground Catholic network at Oxford to gather information about a plot to overthrow the queen, but his mission is derailed when a murder occurs just outside his window.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385531281, Hardcover)

Edward Rutherfurd Reviews Heresy

Edward Rutherfurd was born in Salisbury, England, and educated at Cambridge University and Stanford University in California. He is the bestselling author of Sarum, Russka, London, The Forest, and the companion novels, The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland. His most recent novel, New York, was published in 2009. Read Rutherfurd's guest review of Heresy:

With Heresy, S.J. Parris has constructed a splendid, unputdownable whodunnit.

In 1583, England was approaching one of the greatest crises in its history. Queen Elizabeth, excommunicated by the Pope for her refusal to return the Church of England to Rome, was under threat from all the Catholic powers. Her spymaster Francis Walsingham had his own army of informers searching for conspiracies against the English crown. Everyone was on the lookout for trouble.

Yet in May of that year, amongst the quiet and dreaming spires of Oxford University, a public debate took place that was nothing short of revolutionary.

On one side, John Underhill, an unpopular figure, forced upon Lincoln College as their Rector by his powerful patron the Earl of Leicester. On the other, Giordano Bruno, a wandering Italian scholar-monk, in trouble with the Inquisition, and in the story (and probably in fact) serving Walsingham as an anti-Catholic informer.

But what is truly amazing about Bruno is that he believed not like Copernicus and Galileo that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the universe, but that the cosmos did not have a center at all. The stars in the sky, he claimed, were other suns, seen from vast distances, quite likely with their own planets, in an infinite space. In short, this monk-philosopher was a modern man. Sadly, he lost the Oxford debate.

Against this well-researched background of real events Parris has added a few characters, including Underhill's lovely and educated daughter Sophia, whose presence in Lincoln College seems a happy invention. On the eve of the debate there is a murder in the college. Then another. And another. Sophia disappears. A Catholic conspiracy seems to be afoot. Also a romance. As the plot thickens, I was absolutely gripped, nor did I even guess at the ending until it came.

The descriptions of Elizabethan Oxford are wonderfully atmospheric and vivid. The characters are believable and sympathetic. The plot is fast-paced. But there is also a subtle message for us about the human condition. Just twice, the author allows her characters to make use of modern words--"paranoid" and "propaganda"--in their reported speech. This isn't a mistake. Parris knows exactly what she is doing. She is gently reminding us, almost subliminally, that Bruno and Sophia--and who knows how many other of our ancestors--were actually modern people like ourselves, with free minds, trapped in a dangerous medieval world. --Edward Rutherfurd

(Photo © Jeanne Masoero)

"Discovering Giordano Bruno: A Note on My Research" by S.J. Parris

I first encountered the character of Giordano Bruno when I was a student at the University of Cambridge writing a thesis about the influence of occult philosophy on Renaissance literature. I was immediately captivated by his multi-faceted career (philosopher, proto-scientist, magician, and poet) and the drama of his life during years of exile on the run from the Inquisition around the courts of Europe. All the accounts I read of him suggested that he was extremely charismatic, the sort of person everyone wanted at their dinner parties, and that he possessed the ability to offend and charm in equal measure--in the course of a few years he went from fugitive heretic to close friend and confidant of kings and courtiers. But he was also a man fiercely committed to his ideas, even when that meant deliberately provoking the received wisdom of the day and courting a death sentence from the Pope.

At the time I thought Bruno would make an intriguing character for a novel, but other ideas intervened and for a while I forgot about him. More than ten years later, I was reading about the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century and came across his name again in a book that suggested that Bruno had added the profession of spy to his already crowded resumé, providing intelligence to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, from inside the French embassy where Bruno lived during his time in England. At the time, the English court was rife with rumors of plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth with the blessing of the Pope and the backing of Europe’s two great Catholic powers, France and Spain, in order to replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, thus bringing England back under the influence of Rome.

I’d always been fascinated by this complex period of history, where religious and personal allegiance was in a constant state of flux and no one, including the Queen and her Council, quite knew who to trust. When I discovered the theory that Bruno had been a spy, I knew I had the material for my story. I chose to begin the series with Bruno’s real-life visit to Oxford in the spring of 1583; it was on this trip that he came into contact with many of the influential figures of the court, including Philip Sidney. Bruno hated his time in Oxford and wrote very unfavorably of it; I tried to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have befallen him there to make him take against the university so vehemently.

Oxford (both the university and the town) provided a perfect setting for my novel. It was a significant hub for clandestine Catholic activity during the 1580s and 1590s, and an Oxford college is a closed community, the perfect setting for the classic murder mystery. I’ve loved detective fiction since I was a teenager and wanted to try my hand at writing one of my own. I spent a bit of time in Oxford, and I was shown around Lincoln College by the present Rector. Fortunately the late sixteenth century left behind a rich trove of documents and records, so there are a number of very thorough biographies and histories of the period available, which made it very easy to research.

I hope you enjoy reading Heresy as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. --S.J. Parris

(Photo © Chris Perceval)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:41 -0400)

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England 1583. A country awash with paranoia and conspiracy, but a safe haven for a radical monk on the run. Giordano Bruno, with his theories of astronomy and extraterrestrial life, has fled the Inquisition for the court of Elizabeth I.

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