Given the subject matter and nationality of the authors, it is almost impossible not to compare ‘Q’ with the work of one of my favourite authors, Umberto Eco. Reading Eco has given me a taste for historical fiction whilst seemingly rendering almost everything else in the genre trivial. At last, in ‘Q’ I have read something to rival Eco in historical detail and (almost) richness of ideas. ‘Q’ is historical fiction at its very best, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
‘Q’ is set against the backdrop of the religious upheavals taking place in central Europe during the sixteenth century. Martin Luther has denounced the Catholic church, and a multitude of preachers and prophets have arisen, each spreading the message about his own version of the new religion. The main character, Lot (actually just one of many names he has in the book), is infused with the fervour of the times, and joins several of these groups (Thomas Muntzer in Frankenhausen, Jan Matthys in Munster, anabaptists in Holland, smugglers of heretical religious books in Venice), witnessing at first hand their bloody struggles and violent suppression by the combined forces of Catholicism and the new orthodoxy of Lutheranism. Lot’s hope for a world in which religion is delivered to the people is repeatedly dashed by its manipulation as a tool of power by the rulers in Rome and Germany. Lot eventually begins to see a shadowy hand behind his repeated defeats, a spy disseminating false information within the groups and reporting their activity to others outside them. Wherever Lot goes in Europe, he finds his actions hampered by this mysterious man, known to him only as Qoelet, or Q. By the end of the book, Lot’s work has less to do with the spreading of radical religion, than with the search to unmask Q.
The historical detail in ‘Q’ is astonishing, with almost all the characters being factual, and the political intrigues surrounding the reformation are brilliantly re-created. Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find the story difficult to follow, despite the complexities of politics and religion that form the essential backdrop to the story. Other reviewers complained that the story never got going. This is true to a point and, by analogy to Eco’s books, ‘Q’ is much more ‘Baudolino’ than ‘The Name of the Rose’, with Lot’s wanderings basically providing an excuse to examine the upheavals of sixteenth century Europe. Qoelet remains very much in the background, and only towards the end does he play a more direct role in Lot’s life, which was, to me, the only part of the book that was badly done. So, despite the blurb, ‘Q’ is not really a thriller about the unmasking of a spy, but rather an examination of Reformation politics and a commentary on the use of religion and power, but told through the eyes a man fighting on the losing side. If you think that sounds boring, then I guess you will find ‘Q’ boring. Also if blood, sex and swearing aren’t your cup of tea, steer clear. For me, ‘Q’ is exemplary historical fiction, perhaps a little less clever than Eco and a little less complicated in terms of ideas, but an excellent book nonetheless.