Until I read Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master, I failed to realize what now seems quite obvious, namely that historical fiction is rarely humorous. It is not necessarily a criticism. Historical novels tend to be set in pivotal eras or woven around events that bring about major changes and are often marked by violence and suffering.
But not always. Set in 16th century Germany, The Relic Master was inspired by what for hundreds of years was a booming trade in holy relics. Its popularity stemmed from the fact that for the entrepreneurial minds of the day it was an excellent get-rich-and-stay-rich scheme. Meanwhile, for millions of sinners who either purchased the relics directly or (more often) made pilgrimages and donations to view them, it was a chance to avoid the fires of hell, or at least shave off a few centuries from their time in purgatory.
He swept over the expanse [of the market], humming with commerce. There must be over three hundred exhibitors.
He noted with amusement two adjoining booths, each advertising thorns from the Crown of Thorns. Unfortunate placement. But there were so many exhibitors these days. Space was tight. Placards and banners flapped in the late afternoon breeze. One advertised a Mandylion, another a sudarium, another a foot (whole) of the Magdalene. There was always a surcharge for an entire appendage.
The problem was that most, if not all, of the relics on offer – think vials of dried martyrs’ blood or the Virgin’s breast milk – were fakes.
The protagonist, Dismas – the same who surveyed the relic fair above – is a wily Swiss soldier-turned-relic hunter who is ready to retire with a tidy sum when he learns that his banker had embezzled his money. The banker is hanged, drawn, and quartered – it is the 16th century after all, and justice is swift – but Dismas is now broke and needs one last big job to recover some of the losses.
Enter Albrecht Dürer (yes, that Dürer), Dismas’s old friend. A talented if somewhat bored court painter, he comes up with a plan. They will forge Christ’s burial shroud and try to sell it to Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz, one of Dismas’s former clients and an avid relics’ collector.
Unfortunately, the stunt backfires and the archbishop discovers that the venerated relic is a fake. He has a mind to torture and execute Dismas, who is saved by an intervention from another former client, the Elector of Brandenburg Frederick. However, the deal struck between Albrecht and Frederick stipulates that Dismas must enact a penance. To that end, Albrecht tasks him with stealing another shroud – this one kept by the Duke of Savoy at Chambery – that is believed to be the real thing.
Dismas, accompanied by Dürer, embarks on the quest and along the way encounters more than he bargained for. This includes a murderous German count in the depths of Black Forest, a pretty girl named Magda with a talent for herbal healing, and a poxy Italian duke who may be after the Chambery shroud himself . With obstacles piling up, Dismas will only have his wits to save him from failure and to allow him to retire to his Swiss village in one piece.
If historical fiction is your jam, and you think that bawdy humor makes everything better, I guarantee you will enjoy The Relic Hunter.
If you like historical mysteries, check out Silent Water, a Jagiellon Mystery Book 1, set at the 16th century royal court in Cracow. It’s available in ebook and paperback on Amazon and FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited.
Thanks for the excellent review. I’m going on vacation soon, with plenty of time to read. Adding this book to the top of my pile! And haven’t I read about one of the Archbishops of Mainz recently…?
Yes! It’s funny how another Archbishop of Mainz shows up in this story! I hope you enjoy the book and your vacation. Patrycja