The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a work of historical fiction. The main character is Francois Villon, a medieval French poet who was arrested and sentenced to hanging in 1462. He was released in early 1463 and banished from Paris. After he was released from prison, Villon disappears from historical records. According to this story, he was released from prison to carry out a mission on behalf of the King of France who at the time was struggling to free himself from the power of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. The assignment itself appears simple enough: entice a printer to Paris who will print books considered problematic by the Vatican that the French state (and church) will use to destabilize the Pope’s power. Villon recruits an old partner in crime to help him named Colin and the two easily succeed in the first part of the mission. The pair are quickly drawn into power struggles that reach beyond France and the Vatican, including the mysterious Brotherhood of Book Hunters. Villon and Colin travel to the Holy Lands in order to secure the texts that are going to be printed and are subjected to a variety of trials and adventures. From this point, the story becomes a mystery about who the Brotherhood are, who is on which side, and what is the actual importance of the key text that becomes the focus on everyone’s attention.
The premise of the story is a great one with the combination adventure, history, complex characters, mystery, and suspense. The straightforward style of the writing works well for the majority of the book, and the pacing is generally well maintained. If you like these things, this is a good book for you.
I find two major problems. First, the pointless romantic element, introduced when Villon and company encounter a slave girl Aisha. The narrative does suggest reasons for the love story, but because Aisha never speaks and Villon doesn’t seem to understand the attraction either, the relationship and its consequences are flimsy and do little more than cause irritating distraction from the suspense of the book hunting. The lack of description or explanation that helps build suspense in the adventure story does not work for this love and eventually philosophical point.
The second problem I have takes the form of two narrative plot points that are not integrated into the story very well. Part of the problem is that the simplicity of the writing style does not include explanation or character reaction that might keep the flow going. The first time Villon and Colin are imprisoned in Palestine they (and the reader) are given no explanation other than ‘we were testing you’, which renders the scene pointless and disconnected from the main storyline. The end of the book is also a little disappointing for similar reasons. Villon undergoes a spiritual epiphany of sorts which leads him to create a deception of his own, but his reasons and the suggestion that his work is not done in the conclusion are not convincingly represented. The one place in the conclusion where the narrative and writing do work very well together is when the head of the Brotherhood is revealed. The reveal is understated, which helps create the sense of foreboding and maintaining some suspense concerning the Brotherhood’s further activities after the story concludes.
It’s hard to say whether the resulting sympathy for Colin (a standard loutish figure) and loss of interest in Villon is a bad thing. Colin’s part in the book is the most straightforward and it is not difficult to imagine how his life might continue after the book ends. This finality does help bring the book to a more satisfying end than if Colin had not been included. I do like some of the more complex characters whose motives and alliances are harder to identify, but given that the main character ends his part in such an unsatisfactory way, maybe it’s better for the book overall that Colin is there to present a more satisfactory and understandable conclusion for the French agents. Successfully complex characters include a group of Christian monks in the Holy Land and a guide/translator named Eviatar who are not given as much page time as many of the others, and the Italian book merchant Frederico. All of these characters contribute to the suspense and action of the story, and their final moments in the book are given enough detail to allow for a sense of closure for the reader while maintaining the potential for further action after the book ends.