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Historical Novel Society

The Heretic by Henry Vyner-Brooks

The Heretic - Henry Vyner-Brooks

First the cover caught my eye. Then the suspense gripped my attention from the very first page. I do not give out 5-stars lightly, but in a sea of Tudor era novels, The Heretic is in a league of its own.

Brother Pacificus is the ideal protagonist for taking the reader on an unforgettable journey through Tudor England. The quiet monk finds himself in an awkward and unexpected situation as the story begins, when four children become his informal wards. Their parents arrested as heretics during a time when the state of religion is in flux under Henry VIII, these children must determine their own path. With Pacificus and Anabaptist guardians to guide them, they make a life for themselves unlike any they could have imagined.

Pacificus himself has a secret past that plagues him almost as much as his concerns over the debates, arrests, and burnings. He wonders, "Would any man know when he was living in the Last Days? . . . . Old Brother Anselm in the infirmary is unwise to say the usurper Antichrist reigns on the Plantagenet throne." This is just the beginning of his dilemma as Pacificus fights for what is right even as he wonders how to know what is right.

The historical detail is stunning and forms a dramatic backdrop to the story that varies from deep journeys into the Christian thinking of the time to fun adventure, sword fighting, and even murder. To classify this as a mystery is not quite giving it its full due. It is a sweeping epic that comprehensively explores the politics, emotions, and struggles of 1530s England and the tyranny of Henry VIII.

This is no fairy tale. Bad things happen to good people. They even die. Pacificus struggles to make sense of it all and to save those he loves most, even as he tries to tell himself that a monk doesn't feel that kind of love for anyone. He hopes to help save the Church he serves, even as he wonders if it is correct in all its teachings. "Is it overmuch sloth to lamely defer your spiritual and moral opinions to another? Certainly it was easier than thinking for yourself. And is he not pledged in obedience to accept his abbot's good judgment?" He trusts in his own strength, which is formidable, but only finds the answers he has been looking for when he realizes his weakness.

Each character is cleverly developed so that a large cast of characters is as well known as friends. Like friends, we slowly learn more about them and grow in our love for them over time. Amidst the fight for survival and theological questions, there is humor. Pacificus reflects that one fellow monk is "the sort of man who is never so busy that he won't delay you ten minutes telling you how much he has to do." He also reflects that "small talk seems better at this point than knocking his teeth down his throat."

No, Pacificus is not your ordinary monk. In the end, the one thing he decides for sure is that "he has seen the indifference of passivity and the evil that always floods in to fill that vacuum, and he'll not be party to it any more."

This was a brilliant novel that will ensure that I keep an eye out for more from Henry Vyner-Brooks.