Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Astronomer

The Astronomer
By Lawrence Goldstone

Extremely mild spoilers ahead, though if the spoiler I reveal ruins the book for you, I sincerely suggest you brush up on your history. Tsk tsk.

Historical fiction can be an unforgiving genre. Writers have to walk that fine line between historical accuracy and a good story. If the writer focuses too much on historical authenticity he/she tends to allow the pace of the novel to lag, alienating the reader from the actual narrative. To little attention to historical detail and the reader will view the novel with a degree of consternation. I tend to fall on the side of a good story and to hell with authenticity, but that's just me. But truly bad historical fiction is that which hold no regard for neither historical accuracy nor a good narrative. Lawrence Goldstone's novel The Astronomer is one such novel.

The Astronomer is set in the early days of the Reformation. Martin Luther is still alive and preaching in the German states. John Calvin is touring Europe making a name for himself and the ultra-corrupt Catholic Church under Pope Clement VII is ill-equipped to handle the burgeoning new heresies gaining popularity throughout Europe. Heady days indeed.

Amaury is the bastard son of the Duke of Savoy and a middling theology student at the College de Montaigu in Paris. He is more interested in the rapidly expanding field of science than the stifling study of scripture. This mildly-heretical behavior has not gone unnoticed by the school's faculty who recommend Amaury to the French Grand Inquisitor of France Mattieu Ory to spy on French Lutherans (they are not yet referred to as Protestants or Calvinists) as there are rumors that the Lutherans are in possession of a secret that will disprove Genesis itself (the (not so) secret information is Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the universe, if you are wondering. I fear that Gladstone was building a mystery here but it was so plainly obvious from the opening pages, much of the suspense was lost due to the transparency of said secret). Amaury has to decide between his dedication to the Church, his sympathies to the reformation and his love of scientific research.

What starts as a lumbering story that meanders all over the place ends up being an action film starring Nicholas Copernicus (no doubt played by a CGI enhanced Sean Connery).

While I don't really want to harp too much on Lawrence Goldstone since he has written far more books than I have, but I have some real problems with this book. First and foremost is the pace. Goldstone bogs the narrative down with loads of unnecessary descriptions of settings, clothing and weather as well as loads of unnecessary characters that have no emotional connection to the reader thus rendering them two-dimensional. The narrative seemed to slow to a crawl when it begged for a quick pace (i.e. the excruciatingly long overland trip from Paris to Nerac) and it would mysteriously speed up when attention to detail would have been appreciated (i.e. the riots in the streets of Paris).

Furthermore, story lines seemed to pop up out of nowhere, amble along for a while only to be discarded without sufficient closure. Characters appear as suddenly as they disappear and their motives are often opaque. Francois, the king of France is wholly unnecessary character who could have been replaced by a quick narrative update on the happenings in France. The secondary characters don't fair much better. At one point in the novel Amaury spends pages and pages trying acquire the necessary documentation from the cardinal to save his bookseller friend only to watch him burn at the stake for heresy over the course of a quarter page. All the while it is never really revealed why Amaury would risk his life for a bookseller friend.

And while I'm not adverse to a love interest, the fact that Amaury is able to bed not one but two decidedly un-medeival women (i.e. in possession of a full set of teeth, unblemished skin and uncommonly large vocabularies considering their stations in the social hierarchy) in the course of a few weeks seems implausible, even for someone like me who is fully prepared to suspend my disbelief. And not to labor the point, but the fact that Amaury doesn't trust a single person throughout the entire narrative but trusts both Vivienne and Helene unequivocally. The complete lack of sexual tension in this love triangle is simply icing on the proverbial turd.

Listen, Goldstone's not a terrible writer. I suspect he's got a good book out there, either in print or in the works. But The Astronomer is not it. This entire novel seems slapdash and careless, as if he ripped it off over a weekend or two between episodes of Game of Thrones. It fails spectacularly as both a piece of historical fiction and as compelling narrative. Tough break. And while I don't expect that every single narrative tangent must circle back to the main story line, but a few certainly must. And while this isn't the worst book I've ever read, if I have a hankering for historical fiction set in the medieval era I will stick with Bernard Cornwall and Ken Follett.

Cool cover, though.


Sharon Henning said...

Good review. I would like to read a good biography of that time period because I like reformation history. Unfortunately, I guess this isn't it. I can empathize with your exasperation when a book could offer so much but doesn't.

Brian Joseph said...

I totally agree with you with regards to historical fiction, accuracy means little to me if the content is good.

Too bad this was such a disappointment. It has so much potential. It takes place in a time and concerns itself with a subject that I am very much interested in.

Ryan said...

I was excited about the time period too, but it just didn't work.

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