Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Hermetica of Elysium - Annmarie Banks

The Hermetica of Elysium is the first novel in  Banks' Elysium Texts series. I haven't been able to find out how many books this series is projected to be, but a second volume, titled The Necromancer's Grimoire, is scheduled for publication in September 2012. The publisher has named it a medieval fantasy. I think it is set a bit too late for that but it is definitely a historical novel with a prominent fantasy element and these kind of stories generally appeal to me. So when Knox Robinson Publishing offered me a review copy I happily accepted. The book left me with mixed feelings. I think I see what Banks is trying to do with the historic and philosophical material incorporated in the novel but the execution leaves something to be desired. It is a bit of a bland read.

Barcelona 1494: Nadira, a young woman serving the household of a former Jew and spice merchant, sees her life turned upside down when a tortured scholar is left in her master's stable. Despite Nadira's care the scholar dies, but not before speaking a few mysterious last words on an equally mysterious book. One that the inquisition would like to get their hands on. When the companions of the dead scholar arrives. Nadira is propelled into a trip that sees her being chased by men who do not shy away from violence to achieve their goals. Her only bargaining chip is her command of no less than six languages. Making her very useful in unlocking the secrets of the book the dead scholar was looking for. He fate is now tied to the Hermetica of Elysium, knowledge so powerful, it cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

In an era where women were rarely educated in even one language, Nadira is something special. She can read and write Moorish (which I take to be an Arabic dialect), Greek, Hebrew, Latin, English and Castilian (this one made me blink, wouldn't they have spoken Catalan in Barcelona?). Six languages, using four different alphabets. Nadira is quite a talented linguist and many people recognize that talent. You'd think that someone with an education would show a bit of independence and perhaps some ambition. Nadira doesn't. She passes in the hands of ever more ever more powerful men and although she does bargain on occasion, her goals are always very modest. Knowledge interests her but not the power that comes with it. Her subservience, despite being treated like an honoured guest more often than the prisoner she really is, wasn't too convincing.

Another element that was less than convincing is the setting. There are quite a lot of historical references in the novel to the inquisition, the Italian campaign of Charles VIII of France, Pope Alexander VI, the conclusion of the Reconquista and the expulsion Jews from Spain in 1492. All these events have some effect on the story but it is all kept at quite a distance for most of the story. I guess the story lacks a sense of place. A lot of it is set in a tower in Andorra for instance. If you take out Andorra and replace it with Scotland, those scenes would be equally convincing. The book never makes me feel I am in Spain, or Andorra, or Italy. I guess a bit more couleure locale would have been appreciated.

What Banks is more interested in than history is the Hermetica. These ancient Greek philosophical and historical texts were unavailable to western scholars for much of the middle ages. With the the increased interest in classical culture of the Renaissance period, they made a come back. They've been pretty influential in he centuries that followed. The impact on alchemy in particular, is something that shows up in this novel, with various strange elixirs being used throughout the the story. Plato is also discussed on several occasions. I must admit the relationship between Plato and the Hermetica isn't quite clear from the text of the novel. I'm guessing Plato's work were an influence. If there is one think Banks clearly dislikes, it is lecturing. There are none to be found in the novel, nothing that even hits at an infodump. The reader needs to read between the lines to see where the direction is going. In a way, this is refreshing in a novel that aims to uncover an ancient mystery.

My appreciation for the way Banks imparts information is not enough to make The Hermetica of Elysium more than mildly entertaining however. I couldn't really connect with the main character and her rather unlikely backstory. add to that the way she is dragged though the story by various other characters and the vague historical context of the novel and you end up with a book that is competently written but not much more than that. Maybe other people will get more out of it but for me it was a slightly disappointing read.

Book Details
Title: The Hermetica of Elysium
Author: Annmarie Banks
Publisher: Knox Robinson Publishing
Pages: 289
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-908483-08-9
First published: 2011

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