Trade Paperback: 408 pages
Publication Date: 03/03/2011
After the critical success of her debut novel, the Elizabethan-set Heresy [which was shortlisted for the 2010 CWA Ellis Peters Award], S.J. Parris had a lot to live up to with her sequel, Prophecy. But live up to it she has. In fact, Prophecy does more than just equal its predecessor – it surpasses it. That’s not to say that Heresy wasn’t an excellent book [it was], but it did have a number of minor flaws, particularly with regards to the serial-killer elements, which felt very modern and sometimes seemed slightly out-of-kilter with the novel’s historical setting.
Prophecy, by contrast, feels like a far more assured book. The detective element still remains – someone is murdering Elizabeth I’s maids of honour and carving astrological symbols into their flesh [nice and macabre!] – but it has been toned down and acts as a subsidiary plot arc. The focus of the novel instead revolves around a conspiracy against the queen herself. This shift in emphasis works incredibly well, giving Prophecy a far grander scope that definitely suits its setting in and around Elizabeth’s court.
Once again, Parris’s central protagonist and hero is excommunicated monk and philosopher turned spy and pseudo-detective, Giordano Bruno. At the behest of Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster’, Francis Walsingham, Giordano has infiltrated a ring of plotters at the French embassy in London. And when the murders start he begins to suspect that they may be linked to the plot against the English queen.
Written with beautifully unobtrusive and understated prose, the novel is told using a first-person present tense narrative. Often I don’t think that writing in the first-person works that well, but I have to say that it is used to great effect in Prophecy and really adds to the reader’s experience, giving the book a real sense of immediacy.
This is further heightened by Parris’s ability to brilliantly and fascinatingly evoke the swirling cauldron of lust, treachery, greed and skullduggery that was the English court in 1853. However, Parris also seems to understand that too much historical detail does not necessarily make a book feel more ‘authentic’ [something that not all historical novelists seem to realise / be able to do!] – the balance between plot and historical detail is just right in Prophecy.
And the reader’s experience is further heightened by the layers of mysticism and the occult that are threaded throughout the novel, with séances, psychic visions and the Elizabethan astrologer and occultist John Dee all making appearances [Dee, especially, stood out as he is a figure that has fascinated me ever since I first encountered him whilst reading Dorothy Dunnett’s incredible Lymond Chronicles].
My only [slight] complaint was that towards the end of the novel there were two action / fight sequences which were resolved through the introduction of a character who has previously not been involved in any way. He is too much of a deus ex machina figure for my liking, and it just felt a tad clunky [which, I’ll have you know, is a well-known Elizabethan term!]. That being said, it only slightly tarnished an otherwise exciting dénouement.