The Day of Atonement, by David Liss

20342628In 1745, Lisbon is still in the firm grip of the Inquisition. (The Portuguese Inquisition was not officially disbanded until 1821.) Families that have been converted for generations are still persecuted as “Judaizers.” Of course, most people are arrested by the Inquisition for other reasons: denouncers getting revenge or seeking profit, victims of torture giving up names to escape further punishment, or people arrested to get leverage on other people. Lisbon is a pit of vipers. Arrest could happen any moment, but it still comes as a shock to Sebastião Raposa when his father is taken by the Inquisition. His mother calls in a last favor to get Sebastião on a packet boat to England. He never sees them again. David Liss’s The Day of Atonement is Sebastião’s tale of revenge against the people who destroyed his family.

Ten years later, Sebastian Foxx is a trained thief taker. (He apprenticed to Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist of several of Liss’ other novels.) He’s been saving as much as he can and heads back to Lisbon after realizing that he will never be free of what happened to him there. His plan is simple: to murder Pedro Azinheiro, the Inquisitor who arrested his parents and left them to die of disease in their prisons. But, if fiction has taught us nothing else, the path to revenge is never a straight, uncomplicated one. Even before he lands in the city, agents of the Inquisition want to use him. When he finally arrives on dry land and starts to look up old contacts, Sebastian learns that his father’s arrest was part of a plot to steal his fortune. Then, the man who smuggled him out of Lisbon asks Sebastian to help him with his own revenge.

Sebastian is a conflicted man. Strangely, he hopes that getting revenge will give him back his ability to feel fear. For ten years, he’s been driven by anger. He’ll take risks no one else will, because he doesn’t have anything to lose. Though he is ruled by his anger, Sebastian is constantly thinking about his actions and the actions of the people around him. It’s just as well, because Lisbon is still the cutthroat city he escaped.


Jurema Oliviera’s illustration of Lisbon after the earthquake.

The first two thirds of The Day of Atonement are gripping, but the end is absolutely brilliant. At the moment when Sebastian has cornered the priest Azinheiro, the ground begins to shake and roar. On the first of November in 1755, an estimated 8.5 to 9.0 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks destroyed Lisbon. The city erupts into chaos. All the plans that Sebastian and his allies and enemies put into place collapse. But getting out of Lisbon has never been easy and Sebastian has finally learned what it feels like to have something to lose.

The Day of Atonement is the kind of historical fiction I absolutely adore. Liss brings the city and the time to extraordinary life. Sebastian is an incredible character and the rest of the dramatis personae are just as good. I was so hooked by the story that the earthquake caught me as much by surprise as it did the characters. This is a fantastic book.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 23 September 2014.


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