In 1686 Paris, the stage is set for religious persecution. Outlawed Protestants – Huguenots - are considered heretics, those who aid them guilty of treason. The 16th-century Wars of Religion have sown bitter fruit in France and England, a condition that continues to infect the 17th century. While dragonnades in England (armies sanctioned by the crown to persecute and torture subjects of interest) are instrumental in toppling the Catholic King James from the English throne, Louis XIV sanctions his own secret dragonnades, albeit publicly denying such efforts on his behalf.
The powerful proponents of the Catholic League in France have reached the highest levels of government. Once Louis revokes the Edict of Nantes, which offered protection from prosecution to Protestants, the remaining Huguenots are actively pursued by the law. Rock’s protagonist, Charles de Luc, arrives in the midst of this disturbing political environment. A former soldier and young Jesuit seeking repentance through service in the Church, Charles has seen enough of the destruction and relentless bloodshed of war.
Charles is a professor of rhetoric (the art of communication) newly assigned to the Louis Le Grande College in Paris, where an elaborate play and ballet is soon to be performed for a cosmopolitan audience. Fleeing the south and a long-term love of his cousin, Pernelle, an avowed Huguenot, Charles has accepted his family’s sanction against the marriage to his cousin and her subsequent wedding to another, though the bond between Charles and Pernelle remains strong. Having seen his newly-widowed cousin and her daughter safely across the border, Charles plans to distance himself from his politically tainted past and forge a new life as an educator. Unfortunately, a star student disappears the first day of Charles’s class, the boy later found murdered. The Jesuit is drawn into a charged intrigue that threatens his new position and the safety of his family.
Compelled by righteousness and conscience to learn the student’s fate and protect a younger brother who is viciously attacked, de Luc’s past as a soldier gives him an edge among the studious Jesuits and earns the respect of the head of the school, Pere Le Picart. His actions also attract the attentions of Lieutenant-General La Reynie of the Paris police and Michel Louvois, the king’s much-feared minister of war, a religious fanatic and member of the Catholic League. The enmity of the well-connected Pere Guise, confessor to the king’s court and member of the powerful Guise family, only adds to the professor of rhetoric’s problems as he draws nearer the identity of the killer.
Seeking a new direction for his life since the loss of Pernelle, de Luc is a fine teacher, respected by his charges and mindful of his religious responsibilities to one of the most broad-minded orders, who delight in theological arguments in service of their faith. But Charles has not yet taken final orders, his love for Pernelle still vibrant and painful. Challenged on all sides in this intellectually sophisticated novel, Charles de Luc has yet to embrace his place in the world, a man of God whose heart belongs to a woman.
I had to remain patient for over seventy-five pages before the prose really engaged my interest, and I must admit that rhetoric - its application and definition - as well as the plays and ballets staged in the final chapters, seemed only a background for the machinations of a murderer, the bureaucracy of academia quite dry. Once engaged, Charles led me on a thrilling chase filled with assorted villains, Machiavellian plots and unexpected surprises.