Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 15, 2008


A few weeks ago I was looking to buy a science fiction book at Barnes & Noble. I browsed the sf shelves awhile, and decided which book I wanted to buy, but I still had some time to waste, since my wife had dropped me off in the car while she went shopping elsewhere. So I spent the time browsing the historical fiction awhile.

Since I love both history and books, a novel which has intrigued me for several years is Ross King’s Ex-Libris, but I had never actually seen a copy of it anywhere. Until that night at Barnes & Noble where it was sitting peacefully on the shelf. Immediately I grabbed it, all thoughts of a science fiction book gone from my mind. The novel is set during Restoration England where a bookseller named Isaac Inchbold–who lives above his shop set on London Bridge–is hired by a mysterious Lady Marchamont to locate a missing book The Labyrinth of the World which vanished along with her entire collection during the Cromwell years when her house was overrun by Cromwell loyalists destroying all remnants of Royalist supporters.

A secondary plot-line which was told in alternating sequences took place forty years earlier during the Catholic-Protestant wars when the king and queen of Bohemia fled along with their own extensive book collection. This section illustrated more of the importance of books in 17th century Europe, and also provided background information on how the missing Labyrinth of the World arrived in England originally.

While the novel is ostensibly a thriller, that aspect was secondary in my eyes to the book’s main concerns, its discussions of rare books and their importance to that era. The historical setting itself was also absorbing, so that overall Ex-Libris was a good combination of plotting and history, culminating in a long, over-the-top scene in which Inchbold and Lady Marchamont frantically flee three Spanish agents intent on murder through the corridors of an ancient house sitting atop an underground river which is rising to the surface and claiming the house in the midst of a horrendous rainstorm. While they flee, she explains the history of the Labyrinth of the World which involves the Protestant Reformation, Galileo, Copernicus, Sir Walter Raleigh, popes and Spanish kings, a sprawling historical epic which carries enough elements of truth to be fascinating and makes the scene rapt reading and the entire book highly recommended for both book and history lovers.


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