The compelling first in a series of French historical novels, deftly translated and published for the first time in English.
Château Mespech is a fiefdom relentlessly imperiled by the weather, Gypsy bandits, royal and religious duplicity, and the plague. Merle proceeds slowly, but his detailed descriptions of the daily workings of a 16th-century household are anything but dull. Pierre de Siorac, using notes from his father’s diary, the Book of Reason, spins the tale. His father, Jean de Siorac, was an apothecary’s son and sometime medical student who became a legionnaire, earned a title and then a barony for his exploits, and retired to the Périgord region with his fellow legionnaire and adopted brother, Jean de Sauveterre; they're both Huguenots in a period when France is torn asunder by religious civil war. De Siorac marries Catholic Isabelle de Caumont, which soon makes the philosophical dispute personal. French kings come and go. Catherine d’Medici, sister of the pope and France’s regent, for whom religious faith is "but a pawn on the chessboard of France which she could play according to the moment or need," is busy scheming. The plague decimates the people, and the butcher bandit Forcalquier ravages the long-suffering countryside. The two Jeans remain loyal to France even after their Huguenot religion is outlawed. Merle peoples his tale with memorable characters: villains, maids, legionnaires and townsfolk, and especially de Siorac, who maneuvers among prelates and princes and is generous to legitimate sons and bastards alike.
Merle’s is a French epic, more genteel than Dickens’ poor-child English tales and less doleful than Tolstoy’s Russian sagas.