I was hugely surprised to learn that Christopher Buckley had written a work of historical fiction. His oeuvre to date has been extremely current political satire. I admit that I would have read The Relic Master anyway—I’m a big fan of Buckley—I asked to review this book because I was terribly curious to see what he would do with a book set in the Holy Roman Empire between 1517 and 1519.
It’s clear from the outset that Buckley is not a regular writer of historical fiction. There’s very little of the extensive exposition one usually sees in this genre where authors regularly share—more or less competently—the fruits of their research. Most of The Relic Master is dialog; characters plot and threaten and banter for pages. The downside of the lack of scene-setting lead me to wonder why Buckley chose this setting.
The Relic Master of the title is Dismas. Dismas works for Frederick of Saxony and Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz as a relic hunter. They give him shopping lists and he combs the relic markets of mainland Europe for bits and pieces of Catholic saints (mostly bits). The relic market has been the target of satire and jokes as far back as Chaucer and Dismas has nothing but scorn for the fakers. In fact, his scorn is such that he’s built up a reputation as one of the few relic hunters likely to bring back something genuine. He might have been able to retire with a clear conscience if his banker hadn’t been caught embezzling funds. Broke, Dismas allows his friend, painter Albrecht Dürer, to talk him into a scheme to sell Albrecht of Mainz a fake shroud.
When the scheme goes wrong, Dismas is tortured by Albrecht of Mainz’s inquisitors and given an offer he can’t refuse. In exchange for his freedom, Dismas and Dürer must steal the Shroud of Chambery—later known as the Shroud of Turin. Albrecht sends along a trio of Landsknechte to make sure Dismas doesn’t bolt for safe ground in Switzerland. Dismas has to work out a way to steal the holiest and most guarded relic in Europe and, preferably, live to tell the tale.
When I learn of a new Christopher Buckley novel, I eagerly anticipate sharp, liberal-flavored satire. I was expecting the same from The Relic Master. Instead, I found a book that was curiously fangless. The setting was ripe for satire. 1517 is the traditional start of the Reformation and Martin Luther is frequently mentioned by the characters. Only a few of the characters comment on the macabre and fraudulent nature of the trade in saints’ relics. Only one character to my knowledge went further and pointed out that the sale of papal indulgences was nothing more than a money-making scheme for the Vatican. That’s as far as the satire goes. I had to wonder if religion is a subject that Buckley won’t fully engage.
This isn’t to say that The Relic Master is a disappointment. I had a good time reading this offbeat heist novel. Dismas and Dürer frequently had me laughing with their barbed banter. I just wish that Buckley had taken full advantage of the setting and the fact that the Reformation was just about to go nuclear instead of pulling his punches.
I received a free copy of this ebook via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 8 December 2015.