The Relic Master: A Novel | Author: Christopher Buckley | Rating: 9.5/11 |
The sixteenth century is commonly known as the Rise of the West. This period of exploration and change witnessed such world-altering events as the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the Ottoman Caliphate, the establishment of mercantilism, and the opening and plundering of the New World across the sea. The levity in such momentous developments may not be immediately apparent, but that is exactly what satirist Christopher Buckley manages to find in his latest novel The Relic Master.
Set in 1517, Buckley’s work of historical fiction builds upon obscure Medieval records to create the story of Dismis, Relic Master to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and soon-to-be Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz. As Relic Master, Dismis’ duty is to locate authentic (or, at least, not blatantly fraudulent) religious relics for his masters’ extensive collections. After a dishonest banker embezzles his life’s savings, Dismis and his artist friend, Dürer, concoct a scheme aimed at making them both wealthy. But that scheme goes horribly awry. The co-conspirators are ordered to do ‘penance’ for their crime by stealing the Shroud of Turin from its current custodian, Duke Charles the Good of Savoy. Along the way, they are joined in this conspiracy by three Landsknecht mercenary soldiers, a beautiful young apothecary named Magda, and Markus, a Swiss mercenary and friend from Dismis’ soldiering days.
The farce of their fictional exploits is set against the backdrop of real life historical drama, which lends an air of authenticity to the tale which might otherwise have been lacking (Dürer’s insistence on referring to Charles the Good as a “sweetie pie,” for example, is as jarring as it is hilarious). Martin Luther’s bitter war against the Holy See raises genuine questions of morality and faith in Buckley’s characters, which are dealt with throughout the course of the story in a manner that is refreshingly sincere. In fact, it is Buckley’s deft balancing act between reverence and irreverence that gives this novel its charm. His characters are likable without gaining any real depth and the plot is simultaneously ludicrous and engaging.
While far from a soul-stirring epic, The Relic Master is a fun exploration of the fascinatingly strange Medieval practices of relic hunting and relic translation – and of a conflicting religious fervor and spiritual uncertainty that perhaps feels a little too familiar in our own times. Casual readers can embrace this story without becoming hopelessly entangled in its web of socio-political intrigues; more knowledgeable students of history can enjoy the gentle satire without becoming too frustrated by its incongruities. It’s a win/win for all.