The Rhetoric of Death

Written by Judith Rock
Review by Margaret Barr

Rock’s impressive debut takes place in a Paris monastery school in 1686, one with close connections to the court of Louis XIV and various courtiers in the glittering monarch’s orbit. When young Jesuit Charles du Lac removes his beloved cousin Pernelle’s from anti-Huguenot atrocities, for his own safety he is swiftly transferred from his southern province to Paris by a compliant and concerned relative, who happens to be a powerful bishop.

At the prestigious Louis le Grand school, Charles not only instructs his pupils in rhetoric but is assigned a crucial role in staging an important ballet. The sudden disappearance of the most promising young dancer, the subsequent discovery of his body, and attempts on the life of his young brother plunge the school into dread and uncertainty. As Charles seeks clues that could solve the crime, he falls under suspicion upon himself and makes an enemy of a colleague – the King’s confessor, who may have unraveled the perilous truth of Charles’ close connection to a Huguenot fugitive. As the date of the ballet performance draws near, he is forced to confront the object of his secret affection, a woman whose presence jeapardizes his vocation as a Jesuit and his very life.

Rock skillfully builds her suspense plot, all the while incorporating splendid detail of 17th-century Parisian monastic and street life, the relationship between church and Crown, along with the intricate political and religious conflicts of the era. She proves herself a promising new talent by creating this powerful, absorbing, complex, and thoroughly satisfying novel.