The Three Impostors

Written by Ursula Janssen
Review by Anna Belfrage

It is 1688, and Achim Müller is travelling to Kiel together with the utterly unlikeable Pastor Mayer. For a while, I suspected the story would escalate to foul murder—that of a frustrated Achim whacking Mayer.

Instead, in the next chapter we are thrown back to 1647 to meet Hieronymus Bender, a young and impoverished man who is given a secret mission: he is to scour war-torn Europe for a book called De Tribus Impostoribus or The Three Impostors, a heretical treatise that depicts Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed as impostors who trick humanity into believing in God.

With Hieronymus, we go on a veritable road trip. We visit Münster, Prague, Innsbruck, Milan, Venice and then, finally Rome. Janssen offers a vivid depiction of a devastated continent. People starve, witches are burned, anecdotal tales of people like Jan Hus or Jan van Leiden are seamlessly introduced—all of it testament to Janssen’s thorough research. There are, however, liberties that detract from the overall credibility: the Swedish army did not ransack Prague after the signing of the peace treaty in 1648 – they did so before. Likewise, Queen Christina’s plans to abdicate and convert to Catholicism were kept very secret, as the queen preferred not to be tried for heresy.

Hieronymus is a wonderful character, and as a book-lover I am entranced by the descriptions of libraries and manuscripts, but ultimately this reads more like a ramble than a novel. When the story switches back to the frustrated Achim, this reader is as frustrated, because Hieronymus’ mission has no ending—it just fritters out. Despite the above, I would still recommend this book for those eager to read an impressive account of the destruction wrought on Europe by the Thirty Years’ War.