Brenda Rickman Vantrease's new historical novel, THE ILLUMINATOR, is quite good, and there's really nothing wrong with it. But it's one of those books that is pointed towards a specific audience, and there's nothing anyone can do about it now. If you are in that audience, you should enjoy it and recommend it to your friends.
That specific audience, I must tell you, is women. I am not one. I do read, and enjoy, historical novels, and THE ILLUMINATOR is definitely one of those. It's set in fourteenth-century England, the time of Chaucer, the period right before the Reformation. Its first chapter features John Wycliffe, the "morning star of the Reformation," who translated the Bible from Latin into Middle English. Its title character illuminates, or illustrates, the pages of the translation, as well as Latin bibles and other projects.
But the title character isn't the main character; that's Lady Kathryn, widow of a knight killed in a battle in France over who the next pope would be (the "Avignon Schism," for those of you who remember your medieval church history). Talking about knights in armor would be a good foundation for a historical novel, you'd think, but nearly all of the action in THE ILLUMINATOR --- including a peasant's rebellion --- takes place well off-screen. The only real battles that are fought are of home, hearth, and love, and those can be as tragic and injurious as any other.
Lady Kathryn is the lady of the manor of Blackingham, the owner of some good land for grazing sheep, and makes her money by selling the wool. But to maintain her independence, she must rely on keeping the men around her happy. That includes her two sons, one of whom dreams of being a knight-at-arms while the other dreams of romance and chivalry. To protect their birthright, she has to balance the other forces --- her serfs, the local lords, and most importantly, the Catholic Church, which demands its tithes and peddles its indulgences. When the abbot of a nearby monastery asks Lady Kathryn to house Finn, the illuminator, she agrees as a way to keep the Church happy. But a powerful and militant bishop wants his services as well and uses the pretext of a murdered priest to imprison him unjustly.
This brief summary of the plot is more than a little unfair; it's actually a bit more intricate than that --- as is the writing. There are a number of points of view and subplots, including a tragic romance involving Lady Kathryn's youngest son and the illuminator's daughter. THE ILLUMINATOR is interesting enough to keep the reader's attention and knowledgeable enough to impart information about the manners and mores of the time. But the novel is informed by a particular point of view --- two of them, to be exact --- and if you can't wrap your mind around that, then THE ILLUMINATOR may be a long, hard slog.
The first of these, as I said, has to do with the target audience. THE ILLUMINATOR is informed by the medieval version of a feminist sensibility; its focus is on the various tragic plights of Lady Kathryn and other female characters. The ups and downs of those characters are contrasted by Julian of Norwich --- an actual historical character --- who was the anchoress of that church. (The job description of "anchoress" reveals quite a bit about the character of the age.) Julian --- the first woman author to write in the English language --- is a steady, loving presence that counterbalances much of the domestic turmoil in the book.
Julian the anchoress also contrasts with the other point of view of the novel; she's the only ecclesiastical character represented positively. THE ILLUMINATOR is determinedly anticlerical, pointing out the worst abuses of both the established, patriarchal Catholic Church and the fanatical preachers who stirred up the peasant rebellion. The villain of the piece, the cruel bishop, is just at the top of a pyramid of abuses of power.
THE ILLUMINATOR is a sad book, full of regrets, lost love and cruelty. It is accurate to the extent that it is a mirror of a cruel age, but it also shows some of the beauty and reflected love. It is not for everyone, but who wants to read a book that's for everyone?
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on January 22, 2011