Annmarie Banks – The Hermetica of Elysium

1494 Barcelona. As Torquemada lights the fires of religious fervor throughout the cities of Spain, accused heretics are not the only victims. Thousands of books and manuscripts are lost to the flames as the Black Friars attempt to purge Europe of the ancient secrets of the gods and the bold new ideas that are ushering in the Renaissance.

Nadira lives a dreary life as servant to a wealthy spice merchant until the night a dying scholar is brought to the merchant’s stable, beaten by mercenaries who are on the hunt for The Hermetica of Elysium. To Nadira, words are her life: she lives them as her master’s scrivener and dreams them in her mother’s poetry. She is pursued as passionately as the fabled manuscript for her rare skill as a reader of Ancient Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew that makes her valuable to men who pursue the book to exploit its magic.

Kidnapped by Baron Montrose, an adventurous nobleman, she is forced to read from the Hermetica. It is soon revealed to her that ideas and words are more powerful than steel or fire for within its pages are the words that incite the Dominicans to religious fervor, give the Templars their power and reveal the lost mysteries of Elysium.

As Nadira begins her transformation from servant to sorceress, will she escape the fires of the Inquisition, the clutches of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI and the French king, Charles VIII? And will Montrose’s growing fear of her powers cause her to lose her chance for love?

The Hermetica of Elysium is a historical fantasy, a combination of two of my favourite genres, with a bit of a romantic slant to it as well. It’s the first book of a series, though I couldn’t find out how many books there will be, and has more historical elements than fantasy. The true fantasy only manifests in the latter half of the book. At the same time, this is not a very detailed historical novel. In the sense that its history is more of a backdrop than an active “participant” in the novel as you might find in a straight historical novel or, for example, a Sansom novel. The history is there and it all fits, but only a few historical elements are necessary to the plot, in other ways the book could have been set a few decades earlier or later. While this doesn’t affect the story at all, it might be a put-off for hardcore historical fiction readers.

The main character Nadira is an inhabitant of 15th century Barcelona and of Moorish descent. This makes her an outsider, just by virtue of her background. This is only exacerbated by her uncommon education in languages; an education which wasn’t just uncommon for a woman at the time, but for anyone outside of the upper classes and the clergy. I really liked Nadira. She’s strong and resourceful, and she makes the best of each situation she’s thrown into. My one quibble with her is that she is said to be totally innocent, but why this is so, isn’t made exactly clear. It seems to be because she isn’t a believer in any one faith, but I’m not completely sure that is the reason. What is refreshing though is that Nadira is literally coveted because of her mind, not her beauty. All the men who capture her – and she does get captured quite a bit in this book – want her because she can read what they can’t read and not so they can ravish her.

The cast of characters is a strong one, though the villains sometimes can be a bit formulaic. I loved Montrose, William, Alisdair and Garreth. They are the most important secondary characters and I really liked how they were portrayed. Montrose is gruff, aloof and heroic. I’d like to learn more about his background as an English nobleman, as it seems an interesting one from the hints dropped so far. William is a young monk, sweet and passionate about learning. It also helped that in my mind he kept looking like a young Paul Bettany, which helped his case a lot! The romance of the book was convincing; it took its time to develop and wasn’t based on just pheromones. However, it was rather predictable, including the third point of the triangle being devoted but unable to compete. Still, I enjoyed this angle and I was rooting for the eventual pairing. I was less convinced by Di Marco and Sofir, though that might be due to the amount of time spent with them, which is arguably short, but in both cases pivotal to the story. The reason that they couldn’t convince me was that they both seemed to be written to be neutral to good characters, but to me they read like either weak (Sofir) or morally very ambiguous (Di Marco) men. Sofir doesn’t hesitate to sell Nadira to safeguard himself, even if he pretends to be reluctant and Di Marco is willing to betray his true master for his own ends. Both of these just didn’t fit in the role they were seemingly cast for.

The Hermetica of Elysium is a very entertaining book and a good debut. Happily, the book doesn’t end on a cliff hanger, but at a natural break-off point: the gang’s all together and now we’re ready for the next step. I’ll be following the series as I really enjoyed it and I am very curious to find out where Nadira and her gang travel next. If you’re looking for a light and pleasant read, spiced with fantasy and a bit romance, I recommend you check out The Hermetica of Elysium.

This book was sent to me for review by the publisher

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