This ethereal novel melds Dark Ages and Enlightenment as calligrapher Dalessius travels to Paris on behalf of the philosopher Voltaire, banned from the city by Louis XV. Dalessius is drawn into intrigue, secret societies, dangerous associations and the machinations of those who would bridge the gap between humanity and automaton. As Voltaire's calligrapher, the scribe has escaped the steady enterprise of his uncle, Night Mail, the transporting of dead bodies in the dark of night like unwelcome letters to waiting families. While engaged in work, Dalessius falls in love with Clarissa Von Knepper, cleverly inserted into one of the coffins. (Each coffin has a small window to reveal the face of the deceased, a conceit that eliminates the embarrassment of error.)
Fraught with gothic accoutrements, dark castles, disappearing ink, the whispered threats of powerful prelates, Dalessius enters a murky world where political acumen exceeds religious conviction and a bishop's words are forged in secret. The author's love of language imbues this unexpected thriller with a haunting beauty as images rise from the pages, tactile, the sometimes rancid scent of inks, the sharpening of points on stone, the venom of suspicion, the ecstasy of love and the molding of marble into human form. There is the sinister rattling of keys that precludes danger, months spent in the cave-like seclusion of a candle-lit room, pen scratching the dark red of blood on parchment, a passing acquaintance with an executioner dabbling with the 16th century Halifax gibbet, the illusion of truth and the jab of a quill as an instrument of murder.
The aging Voltaire depends upon his scribe to carry out his business, the boy insinuating himself into the winding alleys of Paris in search of his love while evading those who would twist him to their own ends. The written word becomes the Holy Grail, a mark on paper as the printing press apes the stylized lines of human touch, a forgery of soul. Fascinating, menacing and poetic, the Dark Ages resists the illumination of the Enlightenment in this ancient battle of old and new, a young man's heart forfeit as ideas clash around him. Luan Gaines/2010.