The “astronomer” of the title refers to Copernicus, and this novel of intrigue centers on the controversy about his heliocentric theory, especially as that controversy spills over into violent conflict between Catholics and Lutherans.
At the center of the story is Amaury de Faverges, the exquisitely educated but illegitimate son of the Duke of Savoy. Amaury is an expert on modern science—16th-century modern science that is, for the novel takes place in 1534. Dressed as a Franciscan, a classmate of Amaury’s is murdered on the streets of Paris for a packet of letters he was carrying, and the perpetrators turn out to be radical Lutherans who want to upset the Catholic status quo in France. Ory, aka The Inquisitor, promises that Amaury will achieve legitimacy if he agrees to help the Inquisition, and so begins an undercover assignment to the politically liberal court of Marguerite of Navarre, the older sister of France’s ruling monarch, François I. At Marguerite’s court Amaury gets a bit more than he bargained for, including a passionate dalliance with his former lover Hélène, one of the most beautiful women in France. Amaury begins to question both his mission and his religious upbringing when he realizes, perhaps naively, that his quest—to uncover documents that support Copernicus’s theory—might in fact lead science to “couple with love of God and lead the way to a new world. This discovery will save Christianity, not destroy it.” Amaury abhors the fanaticism of the Inquisition and is an enlightened man of the age. In creating his 16th-century tapestry, Goldstone (The Friar and the Cipher, 2005, etc.) weaves in actual historical figures, not just French royalty but also Rabelais (as earthy and witty as one would expect), John Calvin (severe) and, eventually, Copernicus, whose life is endangered as a result of his “heretical” theories.
Goldstone keeps his 16th-century themes—murder, religious fanaticism, espionage and court intrigue—moving at a 21st-century pace.