🙂 🙂 🙂
Peter Schoeffer has devoted his youth to learning the art of scribing but, just as he is on the point of success in his career, his adoptive father calls him back to Mainz to apprentice him all over again – this time to Johannes Gutenberg. Peter is horrified to discover that Gutenberg has created a way to print books, this seeming almost blasphemous to a young man trained to believe that every word he writes is for the glory of God. However, when it is decided that they will print a Bible, Peter comes to believe that the printing will make the word of God more accessible than it has ever been and that he has been chosen by God to perform this task. However, the printing will take years and must be done in secrecy, and Gutenberg is a difficult master to work for. As time passes, resentments grow and Peter feels the secret may be betrayed before the book can be completed…
This is a book that I really wish I could praise more. The writing is always good, often excellent. The story is an interesting one, and Christie has clearly done a ton of research, both on printing techniques and on the history of the period. She shows the power of the Roman Church and of the corruption that was commonplace in it. The story is set within the merchant class, and we see how the Trades Guilds operated, often clashing with a Church that made excessive demands on their income with the ever-present threat of excommunication for defaulters. The characterisation of Peter is strong – we see him grow and develop as he moves into manhood and takes on more of the burden of producing the Bible.
However, there are also many flaws in the book – some small, some rather more important. I am the first to complain when an author does an information dump of the research they’ve done, but this book has the opposite problem. Christie has clearly steeped herself so deeply in the time and place that she seems to forget that the reader may not be as familiar with the political and religious circumstances as she. Many times I felt that she under-explained things, leaving me without a clear grasp of the bigger picture. As just one example, while I got that they had to keep the printing hidden, I was never completely clear why. The suggestion seemed to be that the Church would find it blasphemous and shut the printing down, but at the same time the Church was willing to use Gutenberg’s technique to print other religious work – I felt this contradiction was left unclarified.
Christie has used a device of us learning the story as Peter recounts the events many years later to an abbot who is writing the history of the Gutenberg Bible. This wouldn’t be a problem except that sometimes in these little sections between Peter and the abbot, we learn about things that haven’t yet happened in the main section – most odd! In one case, we find out about the early death of a character and then we’re taken straight back to the past where she’s just about to marry. For me, this kind of thing destroyed any kind of emotional tension or investment.
I’ve said that the characterisation of Peter is strong, and it is. However he becomes increasingly unlikeable as the book progresses – sanctimonious and self-righteous to a degree that made me want him to fail. (Actually it made me want to hit him over the head with a brick, to be honest.) The other characters are largely underdeveloped, including Peter’s family and the woman that he falls in love with. Gutenberg in particular is so patchily portrayed that I was entirely unclear as to what precisely he had done to make Peter resent him so badly. And the men in the workshop never came to life.
In the end, I’m not sure whether I feel the experience of reading this was worth it or not. I did find it well written in terms of the prose, and it held my attention for the most part, but I find I’m unconvinced of the authenticity or completeness of the picture that it gives of either the characters or the time. A pity, because the basic story has all the ingredients to make a fascinating one.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.