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Heresy (Giordano Bruno, Book 1) Hardcover – February 23, 2010

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Editorial Reviews Review

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)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Set in 1583 against a backdrop of religious-political intrigue and barbaric judicial reprisals, Parris's compelling debut centers on real-life Giordano Bruno, a former Italian monk excommunicated by the Roman Catholic church and hunted across Europe by the Inquisition for his belief in a heliocentric infinite universe. Befriended by the charismatic English courtier and soldier Sir Philip Sidney, the ambitious Bruno flees to more tolerant Protestant England, where Elizabeth I's secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham, recruits him to spy, under the cover of philosophical disputation, on secretly Catholic Oxford scholars suspected of plotting treason. As one Oxford fellow after another falls to gruesome homicide, Bruno struggles to unravel Oxford's tangled loyalties. Parris (the pseudonym of British journalist Stephanie Merritt) interweaves historical fact with psychological insight as Bruno, a humanist dangerously ahead of his time, begins his quest to light the fire of enlightenment in Europe. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (February 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385531281
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385531283
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (153 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #923,261 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

S.J. Parris is the pen name of Stephanie Merritt who began reviewing books for national newspapers while she was reading English literature at Queens' College, Cambridge. After graduating, she went on to become Deputy Literary Editor of The Observer in 1999. She continues to work as a feature writer and critic for the Guardian and the Observer and from 2007-2008 she curated and produced the Talks and Debates program on issues in contemporary arts and politics at London's Soho Theatre. She has appeared as a panelist on various Radio Four shows and on BBC2's Newsnight Review, and is a regular chair and presenter at the Hay Festival and the National Theatre. She has been a judge for the Costa Biography Award, the Orange New Writing Award and the Perrier Comedy Award. She lives in the south of England with her son.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The press notes that accompanied this book claims that it will be a "blockbuster". I think that's wishful thinking on the part of the publisher, but that's okay. True "blockbuster" books are accessible to all readers, like "The DaVinci Code" and "Love Story". They tend to "read" like the movie scripts they often become.

No, I don't think "Heresy" will become a mega-bestseller. It is much too deeply plotted and written to appeal to the average reader. I'm not saying this in a snobbish way; I just think the reader of "Heresy" must have a fairly good background in Tudor/Church history in order to understand it and enjoy it.

"Heresy" is set in Oxford in the mid-1580's, with a prologue set about ten years earlier in Naples. The main character, Giordano Bruno, a "monk, scientist, philosopher, and magician", begins questioning the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church a little too deeply - particularly in regard to Copernicus's beliefs about the earth revolving around the sun, rather than vise-versa - and departs his monastery one step before the Inquisition. He works his way to England as a "traveling scholar" and finds himself in Oxford, hired by the English government to help expose Catholics still worshiping in secret. Even though Elizabeth has been on the throne for thirty years or so and the English church is well established, her government is afraid of Catholic elements championing her cousin, Catholic Mary, Queen of Scotland, as the REAL ruler of England.

Bruno comes to Oxford, to Lincoln College (a real Oxford college) with a larger group. Soon scholars at Lincoln begin to be killed in rather disgusting ways and Bruno steps up to help find the murderer.
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35 of 43 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
S. J. Parris's "Heresy" opens in 1576. A young Dominican monk named Giordano Bruno, who has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, is caught by his superiors reading forbidden books. He flees Italy and the Inquisitor, and is subsequently excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Eventually, he becomes a philosopher and a Doctor of Theology and plans to write a book "that would undo all the certainties not only of the Roman church but of the whole Christian religion."

We next meet up with Bruno in 1583, under far different circumstances. After living from hand to mouth for years, he manages to become a favorite in the Court of King Henri III of France. When conditions in France threaten to become precarious, he joins his well-connected friend, Sir Philip Sydney, who is fiercely loyal to Queen Elizabeth I, on a trip to Oxford, England. While there, Bruno will engage in an academic disputation with John Underhill, rector of Lincoln College, but he is also surreptitiously carrying out an assignment on behalf of the queen's personal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham. Bruno has been commissioned to learn the identity of papists who practice their faith secretly. The queen fears that these ardent Catholics are converting others and may be plotting to overthrow her. Another reason for Bruno's visit is his desire to find an ancient manuscript that might allow him "to glimpse what lies beyond the known cosmos." He optimistically hopes that when he reveals certain underlying truths, all men will be considered divine and religious conflicts will disappear.

When Bruno reaches his destination, he does not find the peace that he craves. There are those who despise him as a foreigner and a Catholic, and he is shocked by a series of grisly murders that leave the Oxford community reeling.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Michael Del Tredici on November 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I began reading Heresy with much anticipation, as it was nominated for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award for best historical crime novel and included a very interesting and complex historical character, Giordano Bruno. Ultimately, the book was disappointing. While the Underhill character was well developed, other characters with more like caricatures: either all good or all evil, with evil looks being tossed at Bruno by the same characters over and over. In this respect, Parris suffers from the same disease as C. J. Sansom: characters are introduced in a positive or negative light with respect to Bruno and do not change throughout the story. Many of the characters have more modern traits too. In one conversation, Bruno describes another character as a paranoid - which is not what one expects a 16th century person to use as a descriptive. The story was somewhat interesting (the complex relationship between Catholics and Protestants in Tudor England is the best part of the book), though the plots about missing books and unusually staged murders was derivative, somewhat in the nature of Eco's "The Name of the Rose," though not nearly as accomplished as that superior book. Instead, it appears to have been written quickly with only superficial research into 16th century private life.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Julie Merilatt VINE VOICE on January 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book had really great potential, but lacked suspense and momentum. It resembled Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," taking place at Oxford during Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Former monk Giordan Bruno, who has been charged with heresy by the Catholic Church for his heliocentric views, is an intellectual guest at Oxford. He is also a reluctant agent of Walsingham and is encouraged to report on any Catholic sympathizers who may be a threat to the queen and her realm. When murders occur in the college, Bruno takes it upon himself to try to piece together evidence to find the culprit, and this is where the story started to lose my interest. The initial goal of Bruno to find a missing manuscript that contains deific wisdom was intriguing but was never developed. While I liked Bruno and appreciated his intelligence and perception, there were other characters that were frustrating and stubborn. The history was good, especially its examination of religious instability at the time and the use of actual historical figures like Bruno, Walsingham and Sir Philip Sydney. However, the plot itself seemed to drag as the book went on. I wish it had left me anticipating future developments and made use of the mysticism that Bruno is known for. The premise was strong, and perhaps in another writer's hands this could have been a more solid and entertaining novel.
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