City of Wisdom and Blood / Heretic Dawn

Written by Robert Merle T. Jefferson Kline (trans.)
Review by Charlotte Wightwick

City of Wisdom and Blood and Heretic Dawn are books two and three of Robert Merle’s Fortunes of France series, which follows the French Wars of Religion through the experience of one family. Published in French in the 1970s and 80s, they have now been translated into English for the first time. Both books are told through the eyes of Pierre de Siorac, the younger son of a Protestant nobleman.

City of Wisdom and Blood starts with Pierre leaving home with his brother and trusty valet to make his way in the world. The novel follows the young men’s adventures as they fall in with a succession of Catholic pilgrims, rowdy students, eccentric professors and philosophers, sinister grave-robbers, vapid noblewomen and violent mobs.

Heretic Dawn sees Pierre and his little band returning home after their adventures. They are traitorously attacked by an old family enemy, who Pierre kills. Subsequently he has to travel to the royal court in Paris in an attempt to obtain a pardon from the King. Unfortunately for him, the year is 1572, and religious hatred against Protestants is rising as Paris prepares for the marriage between Margot of France and Henri of Navarre.

Pierre is an engaging narrator: impetuous, brave and loyal. As a moderate Protestant with friends and family on both side of the religious divide, his viewpoint, and the horrors that are unleashed during the two books by both sides, acts as a powerful plea for religious tolerance. Merle’s writing style is entertaining, easy to read and well-paced, despite both books’ lengths. The only irritant is the fact that female characters seem to exist only for maternal or sexual purposes, rarely having clearly defined characters of their own or playing active roles. Otherwise however these are thought-provoking yet thrilling swashbucklers – and immensely good fun.