Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley (2015)

Cover of The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley, 2015.

Christopher Buckley, 2015.
Christopher Buckley is most well-known for his satirical novels that poke fun at contemporary politics. His latest novel, The Relic Master, released in December of 2015, is set in the Holy Roman Empire of the 16th century. So, yes, it’s a bit of a change of pace for Buckley. But The Relic Master is a very successful change of pace, and the erudite wit that readers expect from Buckley is still to be found in generous quantities. 

The relic master in question is named Dismas, and he works for two different patrons, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz. Dismas travels far and wide searching for holy relics, which can be anything associated with saints or early Christian martyrs. And I do mean anything. The novel opens in 1517, with Dismas attending a relic fair in Basel. One vendor offers, “…the tongue (entire) of St. Anthony of Padua; an ampulla of the Virgin’s breast milk; a stone from the scala santa, the steps of Pilate’s palace; a few pieces of straw from the sacra incunabulum, the holy manger in Bethlehem; and shavings from the chains of St. Peter. A suspiciously vast array of goods.” (p.7)

People paid money to venerate these relics, and in return, they received time off from their time spent in purgatory after death. One of the funnier scenes in The Relic Master is when Albrecht and Friar Tetzel figure out how many years in purgatory each of the relics is worth. This practice was known as selling indulgences, and it was one of the main reasons why Martin Luther split from the Catholic Church. (Luther is a cause of much consternation throughout The Relic Master.

After losing all of his savings, Dismas decides to take advantage of the Archbishop of Mainz’s ravenous desire to own the burial shroud of Christ, and he enlists his good friend, the artist Albrecht Durer, to help him create a fake shroud. To say more about the plot would give too much away, and you probably know by this point in the review if the book sounds interesting or not. 

Buckley creates many vivid characters in The Relic Master, some of them based in history, others not. Dismas’ love interest in the book is Magda, a beautiful woman who has a strong background in apothecary, which comes in handy many times. My favorite minor character in the book was Rostang, a chamberlain with a verbal tic who has many funny lines. And in Dismas, Buckley has created a compelling lead character to follow through the story. Dismas has two of my favorite lines from the book:

“Witches cannot bear the touch of the crucified Jesus. Thank God for science.” (p.151) 

“Let me explain Christianity to you. Pilgrims make pilgrimages to atone. Do you think people walk hundreds of miles to grovel before relics because they feel wonderful about themselves? No. They do it because they think otherwise they will go to Hell.” (p.221, Dismas to Durer)

Throughout The Relic Master Buckley does an excellent job of giving the reader the necessary historical context, but it never feels dry or dull. The Relic Master is another highly entertaining work from one of our funniest writers.

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