A very strange historical mystery thriller, set during the time of the Enlightenment in pre-revolutionary France. It mixes real historical characters and events with fantasy and steam punk (or some variant thereof).
About: The story revolves around Dalessius, who has been trained in the ancient but dying art of calligraphy. The opening of the novel finds him an outcast, an ocean away from France and recounting the strange events of his life. Orphaned when he was young, he found himself in the care of a disinterested uncle who sent him off to study calligraphy upon finding out that writing and creating alphabets seemed to be his only useful talents. After finishing school and an unfortunate incident during his first career in the courts, Dalessius finds himself sent off once again, this time to a far-flung corner of France to work for the brilliant but ostracized Voltaire.
No fan of much of the establishment (be it religious, legal or social), Voltaire is outraged when an innocent man and his family are arrested and tried for the murder of the man’s own son. Especially so, as the church and religious zealots are stoking the fires of public discontent by making ridiculous claims - the man being a Huguenot who has allegedly killed his son for wanting to convert to Catholicism. As Voltaire is not welcome in many circles and is too well known to be able to travel secretly, he sends Dalessius on a mission to find out what really happened and to try and help save the condemned family.
So begins a strange journey where Dalessius will encounter weird and wonderful things; plus many people and things which are anything but wonderful. As different religious factions jostle for influence and power, Dalessius becomes wrapped up in a plot involving automata – mechanical people who are almost undetectable amongst real people – and the genius who creates them. And calligraphy and master calligraphers are also central to the plot.
John’s Thoughts: This is a complex and intriguing story, pitching light against dark, technological advancement against tradition, and wit against brute strength – all within a 150-page novel which fairly zips along. De Santis cleverly mixes a fantastic plot with a solid basis of real characters and events to make for a satisfying story. He creates some nasty monsters, though the monsters are all people and not the automata, who are innocents and tools of their masters (well, mostly).
This is an odd book in the sense that condensing it down into 150 pages gives it a lot of pace and momentum, while at the same time I was sometimes craving for a bit more explanation and detail. I’m still not entirely sure that I “got it” and have a funny feeling that I missed some of the subtleties of the plot. I almost want to re-read it to try and tie up some lose ends that seem to be dangling. Nonetheless it’s intriguing and highly imaginative. Its a fine story that I’d rate 4 stars.
- Voltaire’s Calligrapher ~ by Pablo De Santis
- Original version 2001; translation published 2010 (ARC copy reviewed)
- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Original edition (October 5, 2010)
- Historical Thriller (Steampunk)
For further information on the book – publisher’s blurb and author bio please see Layers of Thought’s preview for Voltaire’s Calligrapher.
A note regarding the covers: The top cover is from the UK edition and the second is for the US with the US cover being similar in style to De Santis’ The Paris Enigma – both featuring stylized faces. This first book was published in the US at the end of 2009 and is also a historical thriller. Amazon purchasing links for it are US|UK|Canada.
We are currently working on a short interview with the author and are very excited to feature him here on our blog. Please stay tuned.
This book will be included in the Steampunk Challenge, New Author Challenge, The 42 Challenge and perhaps one more.
Thanks for reading!