Review: “Sacrilege” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a historical detective novel. So, since I had a bit more time than I’ve had for the past three book reviews, I thought that I’d check out S. J. Parris’ 2012 novel “Sacrilege”.

This was one of a number of historical novels I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year (the same one where I found my copy of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall) and, given how much I enjoyed other novels in this genre like C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels (eg: “Heartstone“, “Lamentation” etc…), Parris’ novel seemed like just the thing to get me back into reading books that aren’t based on films, TV shows, videogames etc…

So, let’s take a look at “Sacrilege”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2012 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Sacrilege” that I read.

The novel begins in London in 1584. Giordano Bruno, an Italian exile who is working for both the French ambassador and Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, fears that he is being followed.

A short while later, Giordano catches his pursuer – only to find that she is his ex-lover Sophia in disguise. Sophia tells him that she has been falsely accused of murdering her cruel husband in Cantebury and has been a fugitive ever since. So, Giordano decides to travel to Cantebury in order to clear her name and catch the real killer….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very gripping 🙂 On the day I started reading it, I’d planned to read about 180 pages -I got to 300 before reluctantly deciding to save the rest of the book for the following day. Imagine a C.J.Sansom novel, but with better pacing, more suspense, slightly more formal/modern-style narration and a slightly grittier tone. Seriously, this is one of the best Tudor detective novels I’ve read in a while.

Not only does this novel contain a series of intriguing mysteries, but this is kept extra thrilling thanks to the novel’s brilliant use of suspense. A lot of this comes from the precarious, dangerous world that Giordano finds himself in. Not only does Giordano have to worry about protecting Sophia from arrest, he also has to contend with some powerful enemies in Cantebury, a corrupt justice system and Tudor-era xenophobia too. Throughout the novel, he’s constantly in danger from someone or another, which really helps to keep things grippingly suspenseful.

Interestingly, Parris’ depiction of Tudor England is considerably grimmer, crueller and more hostile than in the fiction of C.J.Sansom or Hilary Mantel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me a bit of G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels in terms of the atmosphere/emotional tone. This helps to add drama and suspense to the novel and, although a few moments of the story can be fairly depressing, this dystopian depiction of Tudor England fits the story really well.

Another interesting thing is how Parris’ “Sacrilege” presents Tudor England’s relationship with Europe in a different way to Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” too. In “Wolf Hall”, Tudor England is shown to be a resolutely European country – with many people speaking multiple languages, and people from across Europe living relatively harmoniously in London. On the other hand, “Sacrilege” mostly depicts Tudor England as a cruelly conservative dystopia that is teeming with narrow-minded xenophobia and general backwardness. I would say that this was a satire about Brexit… but this novel was published four years before the referendum.

In addition to all of this, “Sacrilege” is also a pretty good spy thriller too. Although the spy elements are something of a sub-plot, they help to add a little bit of extra intrigue and suspense to the story – especially since they often tend to involve classic-style spy stuff like coded messages, invisible ink, hidden doors, sneaking around etc… too.

Likewise, this sub-plot also allows for some exploration of the religious politics of Tudor England too – but, although this is an important element of the story, it isn’t quite as prominent as it is in novels like Sansom’s “Lamentation” and Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”.

The novel also includes a few interesting horror elements too – mostly consisting of some rather gothic moments that take place inside gloomy crypts and tunnels, in addition to some more traditional horror elements involving monstrous crimes of various types.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good – with most of the characters coming across as realistic flawed people with realistic motivations. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, the sympathetic characters don’t really “fit in” with the world around them for one reason or another (with “Sacrilege” being a novel about exiles and fugitives). And, of course, the story’s villains are also suitably monstrous too. Likewise, just like C.J.Sansom, this novel also takes a fairly modern approach towards things like psychology, social ills etc.. too.

As for the writing, Parris’ first-person narration works really well. Like C.J.Sansom, Parris’ narration is modern enough to be easily readable, whilst also carrying a slight Tudor flavour too (albeit less than in a Sansom novel). However, since the narrator of “Sacrilege” (Giordano) is a well-travelled scientist/scholar and diplomat, the narration is slightly more on the formal and descriptive side of things – although it is still “matter of fact” enough to keep the story fast-paced and gripping.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although, at 481 pages, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things – it never really feels bloated. Likewise, the pacing in this novel is excellent too 🙂 In other words, the story starts dramatically and remains consistently gripping throughout. Seriously, I cannot praise the pacing of this novel highly enough 🙂

All in all, this novel is a brilliantly gripping historical detective thriller novel. If you enjoy C. J. Sansom’s “Shardlake” books, then you might enjoy this book even more. It’s a bit like a Sansom novel, but with better pacing and more suspense. Likewise, if you want a novel that combines spy fiction, detective fiction and dystopian fiction, then this one might be worth looking at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

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