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Shrouded in mystery - The Relic Master'

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Historical novel features cutting satire, compelling narrative

Christopher Buckley is a veteran of the best-seller lists, known for quirky works of wit and intelligence that take on the nuts and bolts of American government works such as 'Thank You For Smoking,' 'God is My Broker' and 'Boomsday' that are sharply satirical and wildly funny.

But Buckley's latest offering finds him traveling farther outside the Beltway than ever before, leaving the machinations of Washington D.C. far behind in terms of both space and time.

'The Relic Master' (Simon & Schuster, $26.95) takes us to 16th century Europe the year 1517 to be exact. Dismas is the titular relic Master; his job is to procure authentic religious relics and artifacts for wealthy benefactors. His primary clients are Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and Albrecht of Mainz soon to be a cardinal. The two men could not be more different Frederick is protecting the rogue theologian Martin Luther from the wrath of the Pope on principle, while Albrecht is simply looking to find any way possible to gain more power.

Frederick has assembled a collection second only to that of Rome itself, doing so out of a pure fascination with the religious power of the pieces. Albrecht, on the other hand, is a morally questionable fellow who seeks more and more relics so that he might find ways to make more money through the sale of indulgences a dubious practice in which people might buy their way out of years to be spent in Purgatory.

When Albrecht's demands for bigger and better relics prove to be too much, Dismas hatches a plan with his good friend Nars (the German painter Albrecht Durer 'Nars' is short for 'Narcissus' for reasons that rapidly become abundantly clear) to manufacture a counterfeit relic a forgery of Jesus Christ's burial shroud. Due to some questionable decisions by both Dismas and Durer, however, their ruse is discovered.

Their punishment? To steal the real burial cloth known as the Shroud of Chamberay and hand it over to Albrecht. Accompanied by a quartet of deadly German mercenaries, Dismas and Durer are dispatched to procure Europe's most celebrated religious relic. Along the way, they encounter mad and lustful noblemen and brilliant apothecariesand they soon discover that they might not be alone in their desire to translate the shroud into other hands.

The subject matter of 'The Relic Master' is a clear departure for Buckley, yet the standard features of his work the meticulous research, the attention to detail, the cutting satire and the biting wit are all present in abundance. It's a wonderful exploration of a particularly tumultuous time in history religious history in particular rendered with the same thorough observation that makes Buckley's takes on contemporary history so engaging.

Dismas is a fascinating character, one generated almost entirely from Buckley's imagination, yet he fits perfectly into this long-ago landscape. He stands alongside real-life historical figures and establishes relationships that are striking in their genuineness. Those relationship dynamics combine with a rich understanding of history and a breakneck narrative pace to create a novel that is truly exceptional.

There's no doubt that the 16th century was a dark time; the fracturing nature of the church meant that men lacking in morality were easily able to ascend the ranks. These men up to and including Pope Leo X himself had no problem using their sizeable power for the purposes of vengeance and/or personal gain. While Buckley never shies away from that darkness indeed, he mostly confronts it head on he still manages to mine the circumstances for humor. Sure, more often than not, it is gallows humor, but it is humor nevertheless.

The story of Dismas and company makes for a thoroughly enthralling narrative. Buckley's grasp of the history is unquestioned, but it is his creativity in filling in the gaps that truly makes 'The Relic Master' soar. The end result is part caper and part satire, part love story and part adventure - a tale that feels both fantastic and feasible. It might be a new direction for Buckley, but there's no doubt that he knows exactly where he's going.

Last modified on Wednesday, 09 December 2015 00:45


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