My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The 15th century was a time of religious conflict throughout Europe, with the Church holding out against, then persecuting, the followers of John Wycliffe. It’s hard to imagine today the turmoil that surrounded the emerging belief that Christian scripture should be translated into the vernacular, but the Church feared that allowing the laity to read and interpret the Bible would free them from their devotion to the (increasingly corrupt) clergy. Within this maelstrom, author Vantrease continues the story she began with The Illuminator, now focusing upon the next generation.
Anna Bookman has been raised by her grandfather (the “Illuminator” from the first book)in Prague, where he provided her with loving care, an upbringing as a “heretic”, and training in the profession of scribe and translator. When he dies, Anna’s life is in danger from the Church, and she is forced to flee in the company of a band of Gypsies. While living with them, Anna grows fond of a crippled child named Bek, and when she parts from the band to travel to England, her grandfather’s homeland, she takes him with her.
Brother Gabriel, the book’s “mercy seller”, fervently believes in the stance of the Church, and one of his jobs is to sell indulgences at pilgrimage sites. When assigned to spy for heretical evidence against Sir John Oldham, Gabriel is uncomfortable, but decides he must do his duty.
The relationship between Anna and Gabriel develops over the course of the narrative, and while she is grateful for the assistance he gives her, she is crushed when he fails to keep his promise to rejoin her and Bek. When they meet again in England, their initially loving bond is stressed beyond measure. Sir John, and old friend of her grandfather, has taken her in, while Gabriel is set to betray him.
The Mercy Seller is packed with historical detail, not all of which is accurate (women of that era did not wear garments called blouses, for instance), but for the most part, provides a vivid picture of the times and places. The best parts of the novel deal with the active pursuits of the various characters; when Vantrease writes of Gabriel and Anna’s emotional alliance, her prose becomes histrionic. I also wondered why she seems to need to insert some sort of dependent, handicapped figure in her books. Bek was interesting, but added only minimally to the storyline. Characters from The Illuminator do figure in its sequel, but it is not necessary to have read the first before the second; any unanswered questions about what came before are clarified in the closing chapters. Recommended to readers with an interest in medieval life, religion, society, and customs.