© 2019 Robert Harris
Sometimes, readers, it pays not to read anything about a book before you start it. Take Second Sleep, for instance, which I picked up purely on the strength of its author (Robert Harris, creator of various and sundry historical thrillers). From the publisher blurb, and from the opening scene — an instant hook — I assumed I was reading historical fiction set in medieval England, in the year 1481. But there were little notes of dissonance, things outside the corner of my reading eye that didn’t sit quite right. I ignored them, absorbed in a young priest’s desperate attempt to get to safety, and then to make sense of his brother-cleric’s demise. But then came…The Paragraph, the one that stopped me in my tracks, the one that made me read it over and over again until something clicked, and I realized I wasn’t reading historical fiction at all, but something even more interesting. Without spoiling anything, let’s just call Second Sleep a thriller about secret knowledge set in a world whose future is very much like our medieval past.
I already knew Robert Harris as an excellent author of historical fiction from his Cicero trilogy, and his diverse thrillers which followed — everything from a mystery centered around the Dreyfuss affair, to a political story about an obvious Tony Blair stand-in. His writing is at its usual strength here; I was attached to young Christopher Fairfax immediately, as a young priest anxious to prove himself, but one whose desire to be a faithful son of the Church is challenged by what he finds in a dead priest’s library — and his investigation of the priest’s death, near a site called the Devil’s Tower that the locals treat with fear. Infected with curiosity, Fairfax lingers in the village long after he was meant to return to the Cathedral, and is absorbed into a story a thousand years in the making. I was spellbound until the end, though my anticipation had been so heightened that the end was…underwhelming.
And now, reader, I have to venture to into spoiling the premise, though not the story. If you want to encounter the curveball in the early chapters for yourself, don’t read on. What makes Second Sleep so fascinating is that it presents our future, one in which a neo-medieval society has recreated itself from the ashes of a great apocalypse that saw massive starvation and the complete collapse of global civilization. Those who pry into the past, especially those who wish to restore its scientific accomplishments, are persecuted by the authorities, for fear of inviting God’s wrath again. And yet Fairfax, once he’s read a letter in the priest’s study, can’t unread it, and so the thriller develops– can he and a couple of sympathetic compatriots uncover what a thousand years of history, and a powerful social order, wish to bury? As Fairfax delves into the past, Harris gives himself the opportunity to offer some biting commentary on the unbelievable fragility of our present order, and the uncaring way we drift into ever-more ethereal lives.
Although Second Sleep won’t challenge the Cicero trilogy for my favorite Harris work, it easily surpasses the likes of Conclave and Munich, and I suspect I’ll be thinking about it in December!
A World Made by Hand, Jim Kunstler. Very similar in presenting a future that’s reminiscent of our past, though Kunstler’s story is set much closer to the aftermath of the disaster.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr
Nightfall, Isaac Asimov