My new obsession: S J Parris

It’s quite rare for me to read books from the same series in quick succession.  Even when a trilogy or longer series is complete and all the books are there ready should I so choose, I hardly ever read them back to back; that’s true even in cases where I’ve been blown away by the first one.  The reason is simply that I find taking a break makes me appreciate the follow-ups even more when I come back to them.  The old cliché that you can have too much of a good thing is definitely true when it comes to books; I find that overindulging in an author, character or even a genre can quickly extinguish any magic you felt at first.  I’m slightly surprised, then, to find myself well and truly ensnared by an obsession that has resulted not only in my reading a whole two books (!) by the same author one after the other, but buying the rest so they’re there the minute I’ve finished part two.  The thing that hasn’t surprised me is that this latest literary crush is historical fiction – if anything’s going to ignite my passion and maintain it, it’ll be that.  The author is S J Parris and the central character is Giordano Bruno, a former monk who ends up in England following his excommunication from the Church of Rome on charges of heresy.  In the first book he meets Sir Philip Sidney and Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and quickly becomes entangled in a gruesome murder investigation with many potential repercussions for church and state.

If you loved the Shardlake series by C J Sansom then I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy these.  The period is similar (Sansom’s books take place during the reign of Henry VIII, Parris’ books are set in Elizabethan times) and both central characters are intellectuals whose quick brains and lofty social connections lead them to turn detective, albeit with some reluctance.  Bruno is an extremely likeable protagonist, with enough self-doubt to prevent him from appearing arrogant or infallible, but not so much that he becomes a tortured hero whose melancholy introspection detracts from the mystery at hand.  And the mysteries themselves are cracking puzzles.  They take place, of course, in a time when Catholics and Protestants were almost literally at war, with heretics on both sides being hunted down, tortured and murdered all across Europe.  Double dealing and the concealment of religious identity were the order of the day; if we learn anything from Bruno’s struggles to unravel these often religiously motivated crimes, it’s that nobody can be trusted to hold the same beliefs that they choose to show to the world.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading the third instalment as it’s set in the part of England where I’ve lived for most of my life – I can’t wait to see how the author brings my familiar surroundings to life.  If you want to give the series a go then “Heresy” is book one; the stories stand alone for the most part so reading them in order isn’t essential, but to get the full impression of Bruno’s development as a character I think it’s best to start at the beginning of his story.  If you’re a fan of historical fiction I hope you’ll give them a try.  If you’re not then this may just be the series to convert you!

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