Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

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    Hilary FiskHilary Fisk

    At over 600 pages, this is an ambitious tour de force which  does not quite succeed in emulating Hilary Mantel, but one feels that the author really enjoys the ride and generally, so does the reader. It is the year 1229, we are in the middle of what is now Germany, but was then a ragbag of mini-fiefdoms – the Hapsburg dynasty is waiting in the wings. In the fictitious town of Hagenburg the Bishop wishes to enlarge the Church into a full blown Cathedral on the French model of Notre Dame but is constantly running out of money. Rettich Schaeffer arrives, a callow youth from a sheep-rearing rural village, wishing to become a worker on the building who gradually works his way up to being a carver of angels. His brother Emmerich is employed by a Jewish money-lender and learns that trade instead. Over the next half century and more the story bears witness to the burning of heretics, church rivalries and schisms, the precarious position of the Jewish people, the hunting of river pirates, the dynastic wars of the nobility, and the machinations of the business communities building their guilds and guarding their treasure chests. Through it all the Cathedral stands as a dominating symbol of power and ambition. Characters are many and varied, and include a canny wife/widow who herself has an eye to making a fortune. There are dramatic set-pieces and ruthless violence in a ‘Game of Thrones’ style.  The only thing missing perhaps is a really epic love story, although Emmerich’s relationship with the wife of his master is a nod in the direction. The author has, I feel, spent many hours immersing himself in the life of the Middle Ages and loves to show it all off – mostly to good purpose. This is a book for readers who love an epic sweep of history.

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