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The Relic Master


The Relic Master

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine in 2008, Christopher Buckley --- whose father, William F. Buckley, Jr., was a devout Catholic and no fan of the reforms proposed in the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s --- was asked if he was a lapsed Catholic. “I am probably more of a collapsed Catholic,” he said. The following year, he elaborated further by saying, “I’m no longer a believer.” His father, who died before either of these interviews appeared in print, might not have approved of his son’s conversion. Luckily for readers, however, those doubts have led to THE RELIC MASTER, a surprising new novel that is one of the more entertaining works of the younger Buckley’s career.

When you think of Christopher Buckley, you probably think of his spot-on satires of Washington politics --- works such as NO WAY TO TREAT A FIRST LADY and THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. In THE RELIC MASTER, Buckley continues his fascination with politics, but this time he gives us politics of a more medieval nature. He mixes real characters from history with fictional creations to concoct an ingenious and, given the era, appropriately violent tale of jealousy and court intrigue.

"Part of the fun of the book is that characters rarely speak as if it’s the 16th century.... an exciting novel that proves that, in the world of political intrigue, some things are timeless."

The novel is set from 1517 to 1519 during the Holy Roman Empire. The protagonist is Dismas, a former Reiselaufer (Swiss mercenary) who, at the start of the novel, is making an “indecently profitable” living selling holy relics to wealthy clients. One might wonder why these clients would want a nipple from St. Agatha, the patroness of wet nurses, or the patella of St. Afra. The reason: they use these relics to sell indulgences, which, as Dismas explains, “allow us to shorten our time in Purgatory after we die. We can buy them from the Church… You can purchase them for your own soul, or for the souls of your loved ones.”

There’s good money in the selling of indulgences, especially for two of Dismas’ biggest clients: Albrecht, the Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mainz; and Elector Frederick, the ruler of Saxony, whose collection of relics, many of them purchased from Dismas, is much smaller than Albrecht’s. Even more vexing to Albrecht is Frederick’s Master of Theology, Martin Luther, who has begun posting denunciations of the Catholic Church, calling St. Peter’s “that insatiable basilica,” and denouncing the very idea of Purgatory and the selling of indulgences.

Eventually, Dismas decides that he has made enough money from this business and wants to go back to his Swiss village of Mürren with his 2000 gold florins and retire. An unforeseen complication upends his plans: his banker, Master Bernhardt, steals his clients’ life savings. Suddenly in need of money, Dismas is forced to consider a scheme that his friend, the German painter Albrecht Dürer, has proposed for ages. Archbishop Albrecht has always wanted Dismas to procure Christ’s burial shroud. Let’s make a forgery, Dürer says, invent a provenance for it, and sell it for hundreds of ducats.

Albrecht may be overly acquisitive, but he isn’t dumb: Not long after he buys the shroud, he figures out that the work is a fake. Dismas’ punishment isn’t limited to a grisly encounter with a body-puncturing device known as The Marionette. He must also travel to Chambéry and translate the shroud there --- translation is the relocation of a relic from one place to another --- to Mainz. Dismas and Dürer travel to Chambéry along with three Landsknechte (German missionaries) and a rescued damsel to steal the shroud, only to discover that another group of thieves has similar designs.

You’ve probably guessed by now that THE RELIC MASTER is a book that is driven by plot rather than character. It is, and perhaps it’s worth noting that, of all the main players in the book, only one is a woman. But, as plot-driven novels go, this one is great fun. It's a rollicking and brutal adventure with lots of swordplay mixed in among Buckley’s droll one-liners. Part of the fun of the book is that characters rarely speak as if it’s the 16th century. You expect lines like “For that kind of money, he’ll want Jesus’s body, too” from Buckley, but you might not expect the genuinely suspenseful narrative. THE RELIC MASTER has occasional dramatic lapses, but it’s nonetheless an exciting novel that proves that, in the world of political intrigue, some things are timeless.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on December 9, 2015

The Relic Master
by Christopher Buckley

  • Publication Date: October 25, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501125761
  • ISBN-13: 9781501125768