I received a review copy of Anatomy of a Heretic in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to David Mark and Head of Zeus.
The prologue in Anatomy of a Heretic takes the crown for the most intense, uncomfortable, and gruesome opening section of a novel that I can remember reading. It had me feeling nauseous and gripped to find out what could follow. It’s a memorable opening and sets the tone perfectly for what follows in Mark’s grim historical standalone book.
The action of Anatomy of a Heretic initially takes place in London and Amsterdam, 1628. The novel is presented in the third person present tense and mainly follows the point of view perspectives of two finely crafted, albeit questionable individuals. First is Nicolaes de Pelgram, gentleman assassin, thief, spy, and vassal of George Villiers (favourite of the King of England). Second – and I am ordering them as per who I enjoyed spending the time reading about most – is Jeronimus Cornelisz, a highly intelligent, extremely scarred apothecary, who has religious ideals that are heretical and motivations that are nefarious. (I viewed him as being reminiscent of The First Law‘s Sand dan Glokta.)
As fate would have it, they are both destined to be on the same ship to the Indies, yet for very different reasons. Anatomy of a Heretic wouldn’t be living up to its full potential if two characters this unalike and well-written didn’t cross paths during a voyage full of mystery, intrigue, and violence, both sharing their unique and very different viewpoints.
Head of Zeus won me over with the novel’s blurb stating “two assassins go head-to-head on the open seas” and likening the novel to Stuart Turton. There are similarities between Anatomy of a Heretic and The Devil and the Dark Water, both are set during the same time period, feature crime, mystery, the happenings of the upper and the lower class on a claustrophobic vessel at the mercy of the open water, with elements of the supernatural.
I think that Anatomy of the Heretic spends too much time introducing the main characters, side players, motivations, and agendas prior to the action moving to the ship (about a third of the book). I found it quite exhausting reading another chapter after chapter, adding a slight extra level of detail or intrigue, when I wanted the action to move to the open seas as the blurb suggested. This is probably down to my prejudgement rather than anything the author does wrong, yet if I can set someone else’s expectations more realistic than mine were, then hopefully they will enjoy the story slightly more.
One other minor criticism I have is that, unfortunately, as I have a lot of time and respect for Head of Zeus books, there were a fair few typos and grammatical errors that even my casual reading gaze picked up which jolted me out of the unfolding events. It surprises me when I see errors in books that are this well-produced.
Mark has crafted a believable, grimy, and dangerous world that his finely crafted characters inhabit. It’s bloody and violent and harsh. However, there are some genuine comedic, warmhearted moments, mainly during Otto and Pelgram’s exchanges which neatly juxtapose the many instances of tragedy. There is a heart and a moral code to some of the characters and the overall story, we have to look deeply through the darkness to find it, and just because goodness is there doesn’t mean it will win the day. Mark’s characters go through a lot in these pages, by the novel’s excellent ending, some may be unrecognisable from who they were when the journey started, if they survive that far.
There are some fine supporting characters too. Stonecutter is as brutal and uncompromising as his name would suggest, Zwaantie is mischievous and manipulative yet likeable, and some well-penned epistolary chapters are present, letters written by upper-class Lucretia who is also on-board the ship. She is writing to her husband who she’ll soon be joining in the Indies. These segments are a nice break from the lion’s share of the action and she is a great character to read the thoughts of and to see how she’s viewed by others too.
Anatomy of a Heretic scores a 7/10 for me yet I think it will be enjoyed by many grimdark fans. There are happenings aplenty that I believe could make hardened GdM fans squeamish. One such moment being “taking clubs and hooks to the rabble of near-tame penguins”.
Seriously though, Anatomy of a Heretic is a brutal and unforgiving grim historical read that features elements of crime, mystery, and the occult.
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