Friday, October 17, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Day of Atonement by David Liss

Today I will be covering David Liss's most recent historical fiction novel, The Day of Atonement. I have been a fan of Liss's novels ever since I read The Coffee Trader. In fact, I credit that novel for giving me what little interest I do have in historical fiction.

The Situation: Sebastian Foxx has just arrived in Lisbon, Portugal from England to start a career as a young merchant. But before he can even be let off of the boat, a priest from the Inquisition must ask him questions and make sure he is who he claims to be, and hasn't brought with him any secrets or illegal texts/items. It is mid-18th century Portugal, and the Inquisition is in full affect. Sebastian would eventually show the priest that he in fact isn't what he says he was, but a man of the Catholic faith who believes as the priests do. This makes him incredibly valuable and potentially helpful to their cause, even though the last thing a newly arrived merchant would want is to have any association with the Inquisition. Unfortunately for them, not only is Sebastian not what he initially said he was, but he isn't Catholic either. Since his escape from Lisbon as a small child, he has converted to Judaism. And if the Inquisition were to find out, he would be imprisoned and killed for sure. But he has come to Lisbon to avenge the wrongs done to his family and kill the priest responsible. And in order to accomplish his mission and survive, he must lie about who and what he really is.

The Problem: In 18th century Lisbon, the Inquisition has eyes and ears everywhere. Even the man Sebastian is looking for, Pedro Azinheiro, has taken a specific interest in him and seems to know his every move. Also, despite having come to the city with the singular mission of avenging his family, Sebastian finds himself with another mission of helping a family friend and his young daughter escape the city before the Inquisition decides to take the daughter for themselves. This means acquiring enough money, dishonestly, that would allow them to flee the country, and also ruin the people that ruined him. As Sebastian goes about attempting to right these wrong, a trip that was initially only supposed to take a few weeks ends up taking months. And as he makes more allies, he also makes more enemies. But as plans begin to come together, the entire city literally begins to fall apart.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 18th century Lisbon, Portugal. The Inquisition is still rounding up people on the basis that they are the wrong religion, and the city of Lisbon is full of merchants as well as thieves. Someone may be picked up by the Inquisition because someone really does believe that they are Jewish. But a lot of the time, they are picked up simply because they have something someone else wants, such as money, property, connections, or an attractive wife or daughter. And if the Inquisition wasn't enough of a force to deal with, in 1755 Lisbon was pretty much leveled by a massive earthquake. And if you were fortunate enough to survive the tremors and the debris from the crumbling buildings and structures, then there was a good chance you would be destroyed by the resulting tsunami. And even after the final wave had done its damage, there were still looters, thieves, and rapists to contend with. In many of Liss' novels, almost every character is guilty of something, and this one is no exception. Even the motives for revenge against terrible people are questionable. And at some point it becomes incredibly difficult to root for the so-called hero as he insists on obtaining his revenge by almost any means necessary, and makes many errors in judgement along the way.

My Verdict: Historical fiction that explores the seedy past of a well-known city is something that Liss is just incredibly good at. On paper, a book about a Jewish man risking the dangers of the Inquisition to seek revenge for his family while pretending to be a young merchant just would not interest me. But somehow, Liss makes it work. Even the seemingly endless twists and turns that come from betrayal after betrayal are made bearable. Something else Liss makes bearable are the almost amoral characters that somehow still end up being likable. Men and women who have done terrible things in their past end up as heroes as they chase down priests right after taking out would-be rapists. It is always an interesting collection of people in a Liss novel, none of which I would ever care to meet in real life, but whose story I can be fascinated with from afar. Historical fiction lovers would appreciate this story, especially if they have an interest in the Inquisition, or the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon.

Favorite Moment: When Sebastian is ready to have mercy on a thief that has been arrested, only to change his mind when he hears about the horrible crime he was in the middle of committing before he was arrested. Suffice it to say that the crime was heinous enough that I am okay with Sebastian's decision to let the man hang.

Favorite Character: Kingsley Franklin is a large, clumsy fellow who owns the inn Sebastian is staying in. He can be annoying, and isn't the most stealthy person to take on a mission, but he is strong and loyal, and that is enough.

Recommended Reading: I recommend the first book that put David Liss on everyone's radar, A Conspiracy of Paper. The protagonist is actually the powerful and intimidating Benjamin Weaver, the mentor to Sebastian Foxx in The Day of Atonement

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