Secret of Santiago

Written by Bernard Reilly
Review by Claire Morris Bernard

In the reign of Alfonso II of Spain (791-842), a supernatural revelation led to the discovery of the tomb of St. James. Some sources identify this James as the apostle (the Great), others as the brother of Jesus Christ (the Less). By erecting a church over the tomb, Alfonso instituted the Christian shrine so famous for pilgrimage: Santiago de Compostela.

Secret of Santiago recounts these happenings. Aurelius, nephew of Alfonso and potential heir to the throne, is exiled from Leon to Galicia, where the eccentric hermit, Alvitus, takes him in. Enamored with Jimena, daughter of the local count, Aurelius ignores Alvitus’s conviction that his own appearance heralds some momentous event. But after a violent storm reveals an ancient ruin, he is forced to reconsider his opinion of divine power.

This earthy story moves as fast as an action film. But the characters, with the exception of Alvitus, never seem real. Confused tenses and frequent reference to Aurelius as Odo (his nickname) unbalance the reader. Modern slang — ‘huh’, ‘sonny’, ‘little kid’ — contribute to the sense that this story could be happening anywhere at any time. Although told in the first chapter that this is ninth-century Spain, and although details in the novel’s second half hint at the place and time, I felt it lacked the peculiar history of its era.