Prophecy is the second in a series of mysteries by S.J. Parris (pseudonym of Stephanie Merritt) set in Elizabethan England, featuring the real-life scientist, philosopher, and former monk Giordano Bruno. In the first book, Heresy, Bruno fled from his monastery in Naples, with the Inquisition at his heels, after being accused of heresy. After spending time at the court of King Henri III of France, who has become his patron, Bruno has gone to England, where, in the first book, he helped to solve a series of murders in Oxford. When this book begins, in 1583, he is in London in the service of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster. Walsingham asks Bruno to find evidence of a suspected Catholic plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put her cousin and rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne. Walsingham believes the French ambassador's correspondence with Mary contains critical information about the plot, so he asks Bruno, who is living at the French embassy, to intercept the correspondence and have copies made.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth's astrologer, Dr. John Dee, has predicted a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in a new sign of the zodiac, an event which occurs only once in a thousand years. It is said to herald the dawn of a new era, and it fuels fears among the common people that it could mean the death of the queen. Is the assassination plot being timed to coincide with the great conjunction? When the dead body of one of Queen Elizabeth's maids of honor is found with astrological symbols carved into her flesh, Bruno realizes his suspicions are correct, that the plot and the astronomical event are linked, and he must work quickly to save the queen's life.
But, to catch the killer, Bruno must untangle an intricate web of conspiracies involving various courtiers, the French and Spanish ambassadors, and their entourages. He also has to fend off the advances of the French ambassador's flirtatious wife, who is much more enthusiastic about a Catholic invasion of England than her husband is. Then, when a second maid of honor is found dead, also with astrological symbols carved into her, after she had been seen talking to Bruno, he realizes his own life is in danger.
A thread that continues from the first book in the series involves Bruno's quest for a lost book of mysticism, which is said to contain the secret of immortality. Bruno learned, in Oxford, that Dr. Dee had paid a high price for the book, only to have it stolen from him the day after he bought it. He believes that Lord Henry Howard, one of the Catholic nobles plotting against Elizabeth, now has the book in his possession. But how to find it? There is a hilarious scene in which Bruno feigns drunkenness at a banquet hosted by Howard, in order to look for the lost book.
One of the strengths of this particular book is the friendship between Bruno and Dr. Dee, both practitioners of astrology and alchemy, at a time when the lines between astrology and astronomy, and alchemy and chemistry, were much thinner than they are now. Bruno, who is working on a book on his system of knowledge that goes beyond Copernicus and says the universe is infinite and there are many planets revolving around many stars, makes use of Dee's vast library in his studies. The descriptions of the library are mouthwatering to anyone who loves libraries. At the same time, Bruno mistrusts Dee's assistant, a scryer, or medium, named Ned Kelley, who claims to see visions of the future through a crystal. Kelley's visions resemble the scenes of the murders, fueling Bruno's suspicions of him.
How Bruno eventually solves the murders, and saves the queen's life, comes as a surprise, at least to me, since I never suspected who the killer was until the end. All I can say is that the plot takes a final, unexpected twist. I am looking forward to reading more of Parris' novels about Giordano Bruno, and I am very glad that she has found another US publisher for the fourth volume in the series, which had previously been published only in the UK. It is, of course, tragic to read these books when you know what happened to Bruno in real life.
Prophecy is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.
Statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome. This is a photo I took during my visit to Rome in April 2018.