SW Perry’s Elizabethan medical man Nicholas Shelby returns in the latest of the ‘Mark’ series. We’ve had The Angel’s, The Serpent’s and The Saracen’s, (click to read reviews) and now we have another journey through the complex religious politics of the 16th century with The Heretic’s Mark. Nicholas has married his fiery Anglo-Italian lady Bianca née Merton. Her London South-Bank pub – The Magpie – has been destroyed by fire, but is being rebuilt. The newly-weds have a pressing problem, however. An innocent Jewish doctor has been executed for trying to poison the Queen, and Sir Fulke Vaesy, an embittered rival of Nicholas, has attempted to link him to the conspiracy. Fortunately, Nicholas has the ear of the Queen’s spymaster Robert Cecil, but he is advised to make himself scarce while the furore dies down.
Nicholas and Bianca decide to undertake a journey, posing as Catholic pilgrims, along the the Francigena, a route from France into Italy, its path worn by the feet of the devout. Along the way they are accompanied by a strange young woman – Hella – who they met in the Low Countries. She is a member of the Beguines – nothing to do with the dance, but a lay order, similar to Nuns. Hella is both disturbed and disturbing, as well as being sexually attractive. While Nicholas and Bianca are foot-slogging across the alps, back in London all is far from well. Rosa Monkton – Bianca’s maid – and her husband Ned have been given oversight of the reconstruction of The Magpie, but Ned has become obsessed with trying to find out who has put Nicholas in harm’s way.
Nicholas and Bianca have arrived in the city of Padua, along with the enigmatic Hella. Padua is Bianca’s former home, and they become involved with a scheme – spearheaded by Bianca’s cousin Bruno and his friend Galileo (yes, the very same) – to build a huge and complex system of globes, rings and cogs which will predict the movements of the planets. Bianca has become (as they used to say) “with child”, but has been told by Hella – much given to doom-laden prophecies – that the child will be stillborn and, thereafter, Bianca will be unable to bear children.
Much of the action of this book takes place in Padua, but occasionally darts back to London to report on the travails of Ned and Rose Monkton. As Bruno and his acquaintances work feverishly at their great *armillary sphere, Nicholas becomes uncomfortable aware that Hella is determined to prise him away from Bianca, and her motives, as well as the obvious sexual one, are deeply sinister. No-one realises just how sinister, however, until a mysterious man in grey – who has been dogging Nicholas and Bianca’s footsteps on their journey across Europe – is unmasked.
This is seriously good historical crime fiction. SW Perry has done – as ever – an impressive piece of history homework, but that doesn’t matter, because great narrative drive, believable characters and an almost tangible sense of time and place make this a compelling read. The Heretic’s Mark is published by Corvus and is out now.
*An armillary sphere (variations are known as spherical astrolabe, armilla, or armil) is a model of objects in the sky (on the celestial sphere), consisting of a spherical framework of rings, centred on Earth or the Sun, that represent lines of celestial longitude and latitude and other astronomically important features, such as the ecliptic. As such, it differs from a celestial globe, which is a smooth sphere whose principal purpose is to map the constellations. It was invented separately in ancient Greece and ancient China, with later use in the Islamic world and Medieval Europe.