THE MERCY SELLER is not a direct sequel to the 2005 bestseller THE ILLUMINATOR. Although characters reappear here, THE MERCY SELLER serves as a great stand-alone novel that can --- and should --- be picked up immediately.
Religious intolerance dominates 15th-century Europe in the opening of THE MERCY SELLER, where the story kicks off with the burning of religious texts. Finn, one of the main characters from THE ILLUMINATOR, is still doing his work with the help of his granddaughter, Anna. Finn is older and reveals his dying wish to Anna, who heads to England and seeks out Sir John Oldcastle. During a stop in France, Anna is met by a man named Van Cleve, a cloth merchant who buys the illegal texts from her. She falls in love with him, but soon the truth of his identity will come to the fore.
Van Cleve is in fact Gabriel, a young priest who sells pardons and has been pressed into service by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is sent to France to begin the investigation of a heretical conspiracy against the Church. Gabriel, though, is beginning to find it difficult to uphold his vow to the Church as he and Anna grow closer and as the world becomes a firestorm around them. Love and treachery exist at every turn, but THE MERCY SELLER also holds a search for redemption, and these intertwined strands form the bones of a great body of work.
Vantrease has crafted an intelligent and beautiful book. The historical elements of the novel are rich, strong and instantly compelling. The use of true-life historical individuals only makes the story more intriguing and, in some instances, even more tragic. Anna and Gabriel are incredibly true characters --- imperfect people who possess tremendous flaws and must struggle both personally and professionally in order to just stay alive. This is an extremely brutal and conspiratorial time, where you have no choice but to trust people and yet know that anyone could be a spy.
Prague, France and England come alive on the page, and with Vantrease's writing you can almost feel the coolness of stone as you walk the castle corridors or make your way through the abbeys. Sir John Oldcastle is an incredible character, and as with all the other true-life representations, his actions within the story offer enough interest to perhaps make you want to do more research yourself and discover his effects on his time.
THE MERCY SELLER is a feast for the soul and for the heart. Vantrease opens up and displays a great passion for the time period she is writing about, and that passion is infectious. Once you crack open the cover and begin to settle in, you are transported to 1410 and become a witness to history in the most fascinating way.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on January 7, 2011