The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy
Author Jerusalmy introduces this book as follows:
"Born at the end of the Middle Ages, François Villon is the first modern poet. He is the author of the famous Ballad of the Hanged and Ballad of Dead Ladies. But Villon was also a notorious brigand. In 1462, at the age of thirty-one, he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced “to be hanged and strangled.” On January 6, 1463, the Parliament quashed the sentence and banished him from Paris. Nobody knows what happened to him subsequently…"
With that introduction, combined with the title, you would expect this to be a cross between "The Name of the Rose" and "The Da Vinci Code," and essentially, that's what you'll find here, sans any murders. Well, sans any murder investigations as the basis for the plot, since there's plenty of killing and death in this book. Instead, what Jerusalmy has done here is build on the mysterious disappearance of this poet, and place him in the middle of a conspiracy, which history tells us would have been doomed to begin with. The scheme here is to find rare and, for the most part, banned manuscripts for printing and mass distribution, in the hopes that what these books contain, and their subsequent popularity, will help King Louis XI of France undermine the supremacy of the Pope and make his country the center of Christianity.
There is some historical accuracy in this premise, but we all know how that turned out (as Monty Python says, "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition")! Still, it is a very interesting idea to base a story on, and one that easily adapts itself to the type of adventure novel that this book is. However, for someone like me who doesn't usually read this genre, there has to be something to pique my interest. In this case, what drew me in was having a large chunk of this story set in the Holy Land of the 15th Century. What kept me reading, though, was the beautiful writing, with its equally lovely and highly atmospheric translation by Howard Curtis.
Jerusalmy's descriptions of Villon's travels across this land were particularly absorbing, especially for someone who lives here and can recognize many of the places he describes. Yet Jerusalmy does more than just entice us with these places so imbued with antiquity (even back then), he also gives us a protagonist who himself is both mysterious and vulnerable. I particularly liked how this poet struggled with his faith and the many emotions he experienced walking the often hostile, yet somehow welcoming landscapes of a land so filled with meaning, and yet so fraught with strife. Most importantly, it struck me how precisely, yet gently, Jerusalmy showed how enigmatic this region has always been, and mirrored that in both his characters and his plot.
Of course, there are many other elements in this book. These involve a slew of characters and all their many machinations, including a plethora of twists that effect Villon and his mission, both for the good and the bad. This was my main problem with this book, as I found that it was sometimes difficult to understand who was who and at what stage all the maneuverings were. This could be because I'm not used to this type of story, combined with my lack of knowledge of the history of the time. However, there were enough of the actions and thoughts of the characters to keep me interested and the beautiful writing and superb translation certainly kept me reading. Even so, I'm still not completely sure if I fully understood what happened in the end. Because of this, I'd have to say that regular readers of adventure stories will probably enjoy this much more than I did, so while I'm warmly recommending it, I'm going to have to give it only four out of five stars.
"The Brotherhood of Book Hunters" by Raphaël Jerusalmy published by Europa Editions, released November, 2014 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, iTunes (iBook), the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you.