The Illuminator: despite the title and provocative begining, a very bad novel.

Mar 28, 2005
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Some obscure points about medieval theology and life.

Cons:Silly, pretentious novel that overwhelms.

The Bottom Line: A first novel that tries too hard, and perpetuates the Hollywoodized view of Medieval England. Only one star, and that's because I can't give it none.


I tend to get sucked in by historical novels. Mix it up with art, and I will usually give it a try. Spotting this one was easy, having it pop up on my Amazon recommends listings, and with the snazzy cover, and the glowing reviews led me on to think that this would be a pretty good novel.

Author Brenda Rickman Vantrease explores the role of religion, heresy, art and greed in her novel set in Medieval England. King Edward III has died, and his grandson, Richard II, is guided by his uncle, John of Gaunt, who just happens to have some freethinking ideas that don't sit too well with the established church. In Oxford, John Wycliffe is working on his translation of the Bible into English, and spreading his writings that would certainly get him tried for heresy if he got caught. Hugh Despencer, the young bishop of Norfolk, is greedy and corrupt, seeking to squeeze the last bit of wealth for his own pockets. An anchoress, Julian, seeks salvation in isolation and mysticism.

Into this mix comes the fictional characters. Chief among them are Finn, an artisan and the illuminator of the title, and his daughter, Rose. They travel from place to place, seeking out work illustrating works both religious and secular. Seeking work, they've run afoul of Bishop Hugh, Finn having tried to save a child from a marauding pig and killed the pig. In a hope to save himself, he's been commissioned to work on a gospel for a nearby monestary, and comes to Lady Kathryn to have her lodge him and his daughter until the work is finished. Kathryn, in turn, is recently widowed, and secretly relieved to be rid of her husband, and concerned over the fates of her two sons, Alfred and Colin. Alfred is noisy, brash, and too fond of drink and proving himself with the local girls. Colin is shy, hesitant, and enjoys music. Toss in a dwarf, Half-Tom, various servants, greedy monks, and the cast is complete.

We follow these characters while there is theivery, lust, illicit affairs, a great deal of theology, and the reinforced theory that the middle ages was nasty, brutish and short. There is little laughter, a constant dread of plague, religious intolerance, little mercy, and general bleakness that overhang the words like smog on a bad winter day. While I do like the fact that the author does research, it doesn't mean a thing when your characters are so underdeveloped as to make them a bland lot that don't engage the reader into caring what happens to them at all.

Too, the novel is overly contrived. While I can accept the idea that Finn is an artisan, the author throws in the fact that he's a disinherited nobleman, that he married a secret Jew, and that he has embraced the first stirrings of what would become Protestantism. Rose, his daughter, is so naive and a ninny that I was aching to give her a good kick in the rump, and Kathryn with her headaches and constant worry is a sad-sack beyond redemption. Toss in plenty of intolerance, anti-semitism, and mystical new age theories about auras from a mentally handicapped girl, and it becomes a novel bursting at the seems and silly in the amount that the author is trying to do.

Finally, the author commits the capital sin of telling me what was going on instead of showing me. That had the result of feeling a step away and disconnected from the novel. Too, everyone is either insufferably good, or malicious, without any real balance to them -- all of the downtrodden are 'good', while those in power are universally 'bad,' and the malice towards the Catholic church becomes particularly virulent. While I do know that power tends to corrupt, and it will, I'm certain that there were plenty of people in power who were willing to help those below them, and that someone, somewhere, must have had a laugh or two that wasn't coated with meaness.

It's a very disappointing read, and considering how much time and energy the author must have spent in her background reading, this novel sinks like a stone. It's boring, overcrowded and overloaded, and not one that I would recommend to anyone. One of the best novels ever written about this time in English history is still Anya Seton's Katherine, and while it is a romance, at least it doesn't insult the reader. As for the author's work, I don't think I will bother to pick up another one of her books again.

The Illuminator
Brenda Rickman Vantrease
2005; St. Martin's Press
ISBN 0312331916


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