Acts of Faith: Part 1 of The Inquisition Trilogy

Written by Martin Elsant
Review by J. Lynn Else

Portugal, 16th century. Aristides is a seminary student when he first meets Maria Lopes. Maria’s father, Diego, is a wealthy merchant from a New Christian family who soon comes under the Inquisition’s scrutiny. When Diego is arrested, Maria realizes she will need a miracle to save him from the direst of punishments, the auto da fe. But Diego Lopes’s burning at the stake is one of legend. According to witness accounts, while tied to a lit pyre, Lopes vanished before the eyes of thousands. Was he dragged to hell as his accusers believed, or could the ingenuity of a few brave souls make the impossible possible?

The story begins with a hefty dose of matter-of-fact exposition, stunting the book’s early momentum. Thankfully, as chapters progress, well-rounded characters and a budding romance enrich the storyline. The inner workings of the Inquisition and the boiling tension in Portugal at that time are intricately explored. Elsant not only brings to life the Inquisition’s methods but also the chilling reasonings (more aptly described as “excuses”) behind such cruelty. Tensions are high for everyday citizens as rivalries over business and/or land can end with a baseless accusation of practicing Judaism. There are somewhat gruesome medical and scientific experiments (especially if you have a fondness for pigs) that occasionally stretch beyond the realm of belief for the time. Elsant’s introduction mentions how some of the science was only remotely possible at the time Diego’s story takes place; however, these elements factor heavily into the second half of the story.

Elsant’s narrative shines the most during heartfelt moments when Aristides and Maria try to reconcile their faith in the midst of devastating cruelties. A clutch of enjoyable main characters helps balance the narrative’s darker aspects. Overall, a well-researched time period and setting create an emotionally engaging narrative.