Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

gutenberg's apprenticeIn the beginning was the Word…

🙂 🙂 🙂

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.

Gutenberg's Bible
Gutenberg’s 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.

Alix Christie
Alix Christie

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.

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43 thoughts on “Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

  1. Snortles…………sorry my dear, feeling smug. I had decided to pass on this one after reading some reviews on Goodreads, and your review does nothing to make me feel ‘dadblamit (Have I been infected by a professorial virus?) I wish I’d snaffled this whilest the going was good’ The length of time you were reading spoke of a reader not grasped by the tentacles of an writer who has mastered the art of being an implacable octopus!

    Jilanne had no need to lend a Teflon shield.

    • I’m glad my pain gives you so much pleasure!!! (Good noodles! As if I don’t have problems enough coping with one Professor – don’t you start too!) Seriously, though, it’s a tricky one, because I did quite enjoy reading it – I just found I seemed to be spending a lot of time feeling as if I was missing bits. But the length of reading wasn’t the fault of the book – just a concatenation of circumstances, the main one being that I really find I prefer reading on Kindle to paper these days. However, early days, but I suspect I may be recommending F…

      • Concatenation……now there’s a rare and lovely word. Thank you for your use of it. It was one which I realised I didn’t precisely know the meaning of, so you sent me to Chambers, and now I do. Exquisite! You can tell, can’t you, I’m going to have to find a use for that one. You came up with a perfect concetto (in the positive manifestation) (I’ve got my Chambers open, and its on the same page, a lovely new word I had never come across before, and has nothing whatsoever to do with ice-cream.

        And I’m intrigued to see that your post ending F.. isn’t as I thought, the result of a cat jumping on the keyboard and removing it from its port, but another you are reading. MIGHT have a look (wonders about removing a little smidgeon of Jilanne’s saucepan outfit, perhaps a lid of the smallest one, or a single egg frypan or something

        • I suspect I nicked the phrase concatenation of circumstances from Bertie Wooster…or more likely from Jeeves! But you got me back with concetto…a new one to me too. Hmm…not sure if I’m going to be able to sneak it in somewhere…

          I’m only about a third of the way through F, and it’s making me laugh a lot. The real problem is I’m not totally sure it’s supposed to be funny – none of the quotes on it suggest raucous chuckling is the aim. But that’s the effect it’s having, and in a good way. It’s very clever, so far – another Az reviewer says it’s pretentious, and it is, but I think it’s being so quite intentionally for humorous impact…or else I’m totally wrong, in which case I shall hang my head in shame (but continue chuckling).

          • And your other current reading, the Galileo, looks interesting but of course HARDER. I shall be interested to hear how it tickled the formidably acute FictionFan grey cells

            Jeeves, now there is a perfect companion. An erudite educator who never contradicts you, and is kind enough to make sure you don’t have to clean your bath after use and the like

            • Yes, I think it’s going to be both. But so far, so good…

              I could just do with him bringing me a nice cup of the soothing oolong and a cucumber sandwich or two…

  2. Pity you didn’t like this better, FictionFan. Such a great premise for a story, and I do love learning about different historical periods. But I know what you mean about that delicate balance keeping the focus on the story, and providing enough information so the reader learns some things. Odd too about letting the reader in on things before they actually happen. Well, much as I think the topic is interesting, I think my TBR is safe at the moment…

    • It was one I really wanted to like – and in many ways did. But the balance was just slightly off, and I was left too often trying to work out the background details. However, it’s a first novel, and I’ll be keen to see how she develops in future ones – she has all the basic skills in place to produce something really good. One to watch!

    • Yes, it’s a tricky balance – too little research and the book feels thin, too much and it can get swamped. I think she was right to try to hold back on sticking in everything she knew – she just didn’t get the balance quite right…

  3. Interesting review. It sounds like Christie has put a lot of work into it and it’s a shame when the overall effect isn’t quite so great. I hate it when lead characters become unlikable throughout the book – I feel like I have been cheated into investing time into someone who is not worth it! Like a rogue-ish chap from the local pub. Or something.

    • Yes, I’d certainly be willing to read her next one – she has what it takes to produce something really good in the future, I think. I need a character I can root for – I found I was more on Gutenberg’s side than Peter’s by the end, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be! And telling what happens to the characters before it happens seemed a very odd decision – I suspected she was so steeped in the history herself that she assumed we would all know what happened to each of them – not me!

  4. I love that part from John…it just says that Jesus always was…didn’t originate in a manger. In the beginning he was! Sorry just had to say it. *blushes*

    Okay! Well…it seems as if it might be a sorta kinda good one. Maybe just a bit boring? It’s a good sign that Peter was vexing, I think. Did he end up dying?

    And then that poor woman…who kinda dies before her marriage. She should have told her husband, though, that would have bee nice.

    • (So c&a when he blushes!) Don’t be sorry! You see, I’m afraid I didn’t realise that was what it means. There were loads of quotes from the Bible in it actually – I admit I felt that I’d have got more out of it if I’d understood their relevance a bit more. *ashamed face*

      There was a lot of good stuff in it – just not always explained well enough. Nah, I’m afraid he survived. I expect he’s probably dead by now though…

      *laughs lots* Yes, though you’d think he’d have noticed after a while… Men! Tchah!

  5. Such a relief! I don’t have to add anything more to my list.

    Did I ever tell you the story about the Gutenberg bible from the book, “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much”? If I remember correctly, one was found only partially intact. Its pages were being used by a butcher to wrap meat and fish. Apparently the butcher was not much of reader.

    😀

  6. I struggled with this one too, and I did want to like it. But I couldn’t copy with the tense switching and couldn’t really engage with the characters enough. Shame.

  7. Gutenberg happens to be one of my heroes, so I think I’ll give this a miss. He was a difficult character in “real life” but doing what he did, at the time and in very adverse circumstances, I always felt he was entitled to be.
    Exhausted tonight – Lynsey finally had her baby today, a little girl, to be called Poppy.

  8. I have quibbled over this book for some time so I’m relieved to read your review and be sure that I made the right choice to pass on this one. It really annoys me when the time lines mix and let you know events out of sequence, especially if they are important ones…. and I really don’t like sanctimonious characters (or people) Thank you as always for a great review

    • Yes, I wasn’t too sure about it either, but decided to give it a shot. But though there were lots of good things about it, it was too flawed in the end. And Peter did irritate me after a while… Thanks, Cleo! 😀

  9. What a shame as the plot and topic held such promise. I also hate it when a writer does research dumps in a novel, but I’ve never come across the opposite problem, except when the author has done no research.

    • Yes, it was unusual – and I kept wondering if I was just missing essential info. But several times I was left scratching my head trying to work out why something was supposed to be important. Shame, ‘cos she had obviously done the research…

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