Voltaire’s Calligrapher by Pablo De Santis
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of Harper Collins
After his parents die, Dalessius is raised by his distant and somewhat unfeeling uncle, a man whose business it is to transport corpses across France to reunite dead soldiers with their families and people who can pay with their birthplaces. He has quite a good racket going, having collaborated with the Church to make people believe that being buried near zone’s place of birth increases one’s chance of heaven. His uncle’s influence helps Dalessius secure a place as a calligrapher to Voltaire, the famous Enlightenment thinker now living in exile on the Swiss border. Dalessius is not in Voltaire’s employ very long, however, before he is sent from the house on an important secret mission involving a court case against a Protestant man accused of killing his son who has converted to Catholicism. The son is being widely regarded in France as a martyr, and it seems that Voltaire worries about this case unduly increasing the power of the Church. While on his mission, Dalessius meets a number of odd characters, including a beautiful young girl he hopes to save from her father’s imprisonment.
Although quite short, “Voltaire’s Calligrapher” is a complicated little book. There is quite a lot packed into these pages: love, murder, religious corruption and conspiracy, and automaton. It was this last category of things that I really did not expect, I must say. Although not quite the main thrust of the book, “Voltaire’s Calligrapher” definitely must be considered to be.steampunk, as the automaton had a surprisingly large and integral role in the story.
In “Voltaire’s Calligrapher” Pablo de Santis has created an historical fiction steampunk thriller. The translation seems to be quite good, but that doesn’t mean it is an easy read. De Santis plots his story in a way that necessitates paying close attention to every word. I confess, by the time I realized just how closely I needed to attend what he was telling me to fully understand what was happening I was well into the book, so I’m sure I missed some things. Even so, I never felt frustrated, or really anything less than captivated.
I would definitely recommend “Voltaire’s Calligrapher” to those willing to work for a fascinating piece of speculative historical fiction set in Enlightenment France. I think those who like to reread would find it to be especially interesting, as I suspect it is one of those books that requires multiple readings to be fully understood.
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