Set in northern England in the early 1630s, this novel artfully captures the political, social, and religious turmoil during the reign of King Charles I. A distant and autocratic king, Charles fails to take into account the enormous religious changes sweeping both Europe and England and undermining his own power. Puritanical grassroots movements have now sprung up, with many local leaders, both religious and civil, calling for reform and purification. John Brigge, a coroner living in the remote countryside, is one of twelve governors aiding Nathaniel Challoner, the Master, in his "Revolution of the Saints" and his project to "build a city on the hill."
Though he attends the prescribed protestant church, Brigg is in reality a "papistical malignant," a man who walks the difficult line between the Puritanism of the Master, a lifelong friend, and his belief that "men must have mercy, for without mercy we are savages." When Brigge is suddenly called to conduct an inquest on an infant found dead in a local pub, he discovers that Katherine Shay, a Catholic deemed "prideful, brazen, and uncontrite," has been arrested for the murder.
With numerous subplots and much intrigue, the story of Katherine Shay's arrest and John Brigge's search for justice on her behalf evolves. The period comes to life on every level of society as the author shows in realistic detail the kinds of gruesome punishments meted out for "sins," the harshness of life for the homeless poor, the dependence of farmers on luck and weather, the fragility of life, the excesses of religious extremism, and the abiding power of love. Realistically presented motivations for some of the extreme behavior in the novel make the Puritan characters come alive, as John Brigge, a man who sees more than one side to each issue, becomes a protagonist for whom the reader develops much sympathy.
The elegant and formal language of the novel resembles that of the Bible. Filled with observations of the harsh natural world but revealing the humanity of the main characters, the novel has a rare historical integrity and unity, with poignant applications to the present day. Despite its forbidding subject matter, the novel is exciting--full of well-paced action and suspense. Many characters have biblical parallels, obvious in their names--Elizabeth, Deborah, Starman, and John Brigge, sometimes known as Germanus. The religious parallels are unobtrusive during the body of the novel, but the ending is overtly symbolic and didactic, its artistry and elegance subordinated to message, and its thematic balance and restraint sacrificed to an obvious, religious conclusion. (4.5 stars) Mary Whipple