Two stories; two centuries, told in inexorably woven tandem.  The School of Night is a masterfully written novel that toys with the very context of history.  It was not until I finished the novel that I realized Bayard also wrote Mr. Timothy, which was an enthralling tangle of Dickensian lore and thriller that I thoroughly enjoyed several years ago.

It’s that enjoyment, that tweaking of intellect, that makes The School of Night as much academic read as it is a pleasure read.  Sure, there’s plenty of cat-and-mouse and reversals of fortune, but Bayard’s story never feels “man-splain-y”.  The connections are multi-layered, complex, and labyrinthine enough to keep the reader guessing beyond the final curtain.  

I am loathe to make the comparison, but if your favorite parts of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code were the historical references, you will enjoy The School of Night.  Bayard doesn’t embed Elizabethan philosophy into the story, he immerses the reader in it.  The convention of a parallel plotline, where historical figures struggle with their contemporaries, juxtaposed with the challenge of divining their meaning hundreds of years later, creates tension that takes this story well beyond your garden variety treasure hunt and lends it the literary heft that The DaVinci Code lacked.

With such heavy hitters as Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh playing roles in the story, The School of Night interweaves religion, expansionism, science, and even alchemy.  Readers make inferences quite literally from two sides of history.  The pace, even when characters are in the very act of discovery, never slows to that of lecture.  At one point, I found myself completely engaged by a rationale of trigonometric functions! The frame story, with its technologically savvy setting, is just as stimulating as the historical tale.

Bayard’s novel takes us from England to the New World and from the US to the Old World in a dizzying series of plausible connections that span two distinct ages.  It is easily the most well-written, perplexing, and provocative book I’ve read this year. I may have stumbled across this title, and frankly paid little attention to its author until I’d finished, but you can bet I will be on the lookout for other works by Louis Bayard.

Rocky Rates It

5/5  ★★★★★

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