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on 19 October 2011
I already knew a little about Kepler and Galileo and was aware they were contemporaries and that their views were against the religious teachings of the day. What I didn't realise was that they were fighting their respective corners against a backdrop of religious turmoil and war with an eminent cast of duplicitous characters.

Stuart Clark uses his imagination to flesh out the details between the well-recorded major events and has crafted a fast-paced story interweaving the lives of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei. The two men had found evidence that could change the centuries old view about the universe at a time when it was not wise to challenge the religious status quo. Both risked death for their beliefs.

What I particularly like is Stuart Clark's account of the day-to-day detail of living in 17th century Europe. The sights, sounds, smells and colours of the streets, houses and inns make for fascinating reading. His vivid descriptions of street theatre, traders, architecture, clothing, family life and the tedium of travelling (and moving house) show us how these people really lived. This is what Kepler's and Galileo's days were like in between moments of mathematical and observational insight and this is what brings the novel to life.

Stuart Clark's style is eloquent and entertaining and with the story flitting between Rome, Prague and Florence (and wherever Kepler found himself next), there is no time to get bored as we chase the main characters around Europe.

I somehow expected the book to end with the deaths of Kepler and Galileo although these two events are noted in the Epilogue. Instead, Stuart Clark chose to leave the stories of both characters on relatively positive notes. I felt slightly cheated - but maybe I was just annoyed to get to the end of the book.

I have no idea if cardinals really were that scheming or whether Prague really was that smelly but it all makes for a good story. In short - The Sky's Dark Labyrinth is a damn good read!
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on 28 November 2011
When I saw this book on the shelf in a book store I knew I had to read it. While being a fiction book it revolves around a time when physics was changing the world, featuring both the characters of Kepler (who first put the idea of elliptical orbits, as proof that the Earth rotated the Sun) and Galileo (who first invents the telescope). It shows their struggles to keep their ideas in line with church (Lutheran and Roman Catholic respectively) while still pushing the boundaries of the limits of human knowledge.

This isn't your heaving bosoms type of historical fiction, this is the sort of fiction written about real characters in a hugely important time period. This is both highly entertaining, I couldn't put it down, and genuinely interesting.

This book would be a great present for those with a passing interest in physics (or it's history), but don't worry there are no complicated concepts or physics equations here. No knowledge of physics is necessary to get enjoyment from this book :)

The next book in the series, I believe, looks at Newton and his later discoveries. I can't wait for it!
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on 14 September 2011
The bodies being those of Galileo, Kepler, Tycho and Co. They all went close to being destroyed by their own exceptional theories, especially the Tuscan genius.

Galileo explores the skies in a way no one had done before and propounds a radical reorganisation of the cosmos in consequence, defends himself from the accusations by the Church that his view contravenes Scriptures but is condemned all the same, and forced to abjure, returning finally in old age to publish a work (Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences; see also The Essential Galileo) that will not only set mechanics on a new path, but will transform the very way in which the deeper knowledge of nature is to be found.

This first installment in a trilogy of novels by astronomer Stuart Clark (the other two will concentrate on Newton and Einstein respectively), although simple in its narrative structure, brings to life the above characters in a vivid and dramatic way, focusing especially on Galileo and Kepler (for the latter, cf. Harmonies of the World), and their cosmic discoveries. These are fantastic stories, and the author makes full use of them, drawing on extensive research, relying on imagination to fill any gaps and, as he said himself in an interview, making "the colours a little bit brighter and the shadows a bit darker."

While not all readers will agree with Clark's approach, this first volume is certainly packed with colour and historical detail: there's intrigue, scandal, rivalry and back-stabbing, political and religious conflict, all of it true.

Funny (well, sort of) how the Church awaited 5 centuries before changing its position on Galileo: on 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic Church tribunal that judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei. Better late than never...

By the way, the book is stamped with the "approval" of the Science Museum/NMSI Enterprises: so, no scientific falsehoods there!
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on 24 May 2011
Even though I'm revising hard for an Astronomy exam., I found it hard to put this book down. You can really imagine being back there in the 17th century, getting involved with the characters. Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler would have been thrilled to know that their names are being used in the Space explorations.

Stuart's style reminds me of C J Sansom's series of historical novels, which I also enjoyed.

Looking forward to Stuart Clark's next one in the Autumn.

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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 25 February 2012
This is a most intriguing book - the author has written many non-fiction books on astrophysics and astronomy, and here presents the stories of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei in fiction - but so true to what must have been the reality, that you feel like you're looking in the window on the lives of these men and those around them - those who dared to challenge the Church's authority on the position of the planets, and the centrality of the Earth in the cosmic system. As well as the Church, the holders of the Holy Roman Empire also, so often, were men of very strong ideals and ideologies. The penalty of failing to keep the Church at bay is made very clear in the first few pages of the book, with the ultimate penalty being paid in 1600 by Giordano Bruno, burned for heresy.

What drove men like Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo to search for the ultimate answers in the skies? This book goes a long way to making that clear to a reader new to the subject. And it's a fascinating journey. While the science in these stories could be overwhelming, the author writes clearly and precisely; making it plain to the interested reader just how these discoveries so massive to the future of science could first have come about.

Intriguingly, in reading the BBC History magazine which I just got out of the Library (october 2011, Vol 12, no. 10) there is an article on "A History of Science in 10 ½ objects" - objects that have transformed our understanding of the world (and universe) around us over the past 500 years. At number 1 is Tycho Brahe's mural quadrant. At number 2 is Johannes Kepler's model of the universe. Most interesting - really brings it all to reality that you can't ignore.
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on 14 November 2012
This is an historical novel, in which Stuart Clark does a superb job of bringing to life the characters (primarily Kepler and Galileo) and their work, set against the turbulence of the religious conflicts that ravaged parts of Europe in the early 17th Century. It is this historical background that enables the reader to develop a deep understanding of the people involved and the resistance to their ideas.

Clark has the combined gifts of being a very good story-teller and having a thorough understanding of the astrophysical relevance of the work (and follies) of the protagonists of this tale, and uses both to good effect. If you ever imagined that a novel about the history of science would be dull, think again: this book has the compulsion of a good adventure novel; it would make an excellent film.
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on 11 November 2011
I'd never read any of Stuart Clark's books before this one. I bought it because I love popular science writing and I'd heard good things about Clark's other books. I'll confess that I didn't even realise it was a novel when I ordered it, I researched it that well. But I'm so pleased that I did buy it. The idea of turning the lives of key characters from the history of science is a risky one, but Stuart Clark has done it very well indeed. I knew who Kepler was and if I rummaged around in my memory I'd probably have been able to tell you of his achievements but having now read this book I feel that I have a far greater understanding of the circumstances surrounding how those discoveries were made and of the social environment which made them all the greater. The book is a cracking read, a good story well told and it's left me eagerly anticipating the next book in what is planned to be a trilogy. For science lovers it fleshes out great moments in history, and for lovers of a good story I'd be very surprised if it didn't light the spark of curiosity about the history of science. Thoroughly recommended and very accessible.
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on 19 February 2012
Clark has created a perfectly balanced novel between history and fiction. The fascinating times Kepler and Galileo had lived in is brought to life with such vivid detail that I could not only see the cities and their people but even smell and hear them. The tug of war between science, religion and politics is at the heart of this novel, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see how the truth can be hardly kept hidden despite the oppressors' best efforts. These men have inspired their contemporaries and made sure that their discoveries hadn't been in vain. I already knew about both geniuses, but having read the book, I now have a profound sense of respect for them.

The only reason I gave four stars to the book is because its ending is a bit abrupt. The rest of the book flows so easily and logically that I was surprised by the way things were left. I guess Clark did that on purpose in preparation to the second novel of his trilogy.
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on 4 January 2012
Although they sat on different sides of the Catholic/Protestant religious divide, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler were joined in their scientific rigor, in their support for Copernicus, and in being distrusted by religious authorities. Galileo narrowly avoided being convicted of heresy for daring to claim that the Copernican system was more than simply a hypothesis. Kepler, nominally Lutheran, was ostracized by his church for being unable to accept the literal presence of Christ in the sacrament--but he could not fully assent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. This left Kepler between a rock and a hard place, unable to find permanent employ within the Holy Roman Empire, yet unprotected by powerful Lutheran forces--a severe disadvantage as the Thirty Years War ravaged Europe in the seventeenth century.

Nonetheless, Kepler managed to revolutionize astronomy with his tables and calculations, formulating laws that accurately plotted planetary orbits--even if it took Isaac Newton to describe the mechanisms involved. In this fictionalized history, Clark paints a sympathetic picture of this giant of astronomy, deftly showing how he struggled with his tutors and paymasters, yet remained true to his convictions. For Kepler, the universe was wondrous yet understandable, a way for man to know God; this insistence on believing the evidence kept him (and Galileo) two steps ahead of the dogma-bound Jesuits. A tale this full of excitement, danger, and drama can only be based on real life. Stuart Clark has wrought a stunning novel that will leave you impatient for the next two books in the trilogy.

(reproduced from my article in The Scientist magazine, 1 July 2011)
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on 23 September 2011
I have always been a fan of Johannes Kepler, ever since watching the episode of Cosmos about his life as "the last scientific astrologer and the first modern astrophysicist"; So I was immediately taken by this dramatisation of Kepler's life and times, starting from his work for Tycho Brahe, through the horrors of the Thirty Years War, to his final post as astronomer-at-large under the patronage of General Wallenstein. Kepler comes across as a likeable figure, and you can't help feeling for him, as he tries to ride the political and religious tides of 17th century Europe. Not only does he have to juggle the demands of his occaisionally barking mad patrons to put bread on the table for his family, but his refusal to compromise in either scientific or theological rigour frequently makes him an outcast and a refugee. And all the while driven to search for the principles underlying the harmonies of the heavens amid a tumultuous existence on earth. In some cases, Kepler seems to almost literally embody the old saying about lying in the gutter, but looking at the stars.

The supporting cast of historical characters, from Kepler's wife Barbara and his children to the mad Emperor Rudolph, also come nicely to life in a series of vignettes.

Kepler's story is intercut with scenes from the parallel drama of Galileo's final face-off with the Catholic Church, but this story never really takes off in quite the same way as Kepler's, even though Galileo himself seems to have been a rather larger-than-life figure.

On the down side, the story is rather disjointed and episodic in nature - particularly in the later chapters, where sometimes years elapse between scenes. I suppose this is inevitable in a story of this kind, but while some of the scenes sparkle, others fall flat. In the Galileo story, Clark is actually quite even-handed in his portrayal of the machinations within the Church, but some of the characterisations seem a little overdone. In one particular scene a senior cardinal is not *quite* sitting in a big black swivel chair stroking a fluffy white cat, with a poolful of pirhanas in the background - but it's close. Maybe 17th century cardinals really were like that, but it comes across as a little cliched.

Nonetheless, "The Sky's Dark Labyrinth" is an enjoyable excursion to a fascinating period in European history, and an engrossing peek into the lives of two people who between them changed the course of history. I'm looking forward to the second book in the series, on the lives of Isaac Newton and William Herschel.
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