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4.0 24
by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

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A glowing first novel that brings us "historical fiction in the grand epic manner, beautifully felt and written"

It is England, in the fourteenth century -- a time of plague, political unrest and the earliest stirrings of the Reformation. The printing press had yet to be invented, and books were rare and costly, painstakingly lettered by hand and


A glowing first novel that brings us "historical fiction in the grand epic manner, beautifully felt and written"

It is England, in the fourteenth century -- a time of plague, political unrest and the earliest stirrings of the Reformation. The printing press had yet to be invented, and books were rare and costly, painstakingly lettered by hand and illuminated with exquisite paintings. Finn is a master illuminator who works not only for the Church but also, in secret, for John Wycliffe of Oxford, who professes the radical idea that the Bible should be translated into English for everyone to read. Finn has another secret as well, one that leads him into danger when he meets Lady Kathryn of Blackingham Manor, a widow struggling to protect her inheritance from the depredations of Church and Crown alike. Finn's alliance with Lady Kathryn will take us to the heart of what Barbara Tuchman once called "the calamitous fourteenth century."

Richly detailed and irresistibly compelling, Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Illuminator is a glorious story of love, art, religion, and treachery at an extraordinary turning point in history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A sweeping portrayal of the distant past…ample in romance, mystery, and adventure.” —The Boston Globe

“A remarkable debut novel.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“An absorbing expertly told tale…embroidered with plenty of homespun detail.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A luminescent and very readable portrait of a dark time in history.” —Booklist

“If you liked The Birth of Venus…you'll love The Illuminator.” —Good Housekeeping.com

"Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Illuminator is one of the most engaging books I've had the pleasure to read in many years. Extraordinary characters of an extraordinary period in history are portrayed with passion that only an accomplished writer can deliver...This is simply a wonderful book.” —Terry Kay, New York Times bestselling author of The Valley of Light and To Dance With the White Dog

"A wonderful novel---a tumultuous panorama of Wycliffe's and Chaucer's England, with an absolutely compelling and irresistible heroine. This is historical fiction in the grand epic manner, beautifully felt and written.” —Max Byrd, author of Shooting the Sun

“In her elegant novel, The Illuminator, Brenda Rickman Vantrease breathes light into the dark corners of feudal England, laying bare the consequences of political and spiritual oppression, and illuminating the power of both love and the written word to save.” —Charmaine Craig, author of The Good Men: A Novel of Heresy

“A very absorbing and masterfully written novel that twines two stories together---a personal one of life on a manor in 1379 and a political one about the undercurrents that led, eventually, to the Reformation. Impressive new talent Brenda Rickman Vantrease has created a cast of characters that stand out as individuals you want to follow.” —Margaret George, author of The Autobiography of Henry VIII

“Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Illuminator is one of the most engaging books I've had the pleasure to read in many years. Extraordinary characters of an extraordinary period in history are portrayed with a passion that only an accomplished writer can deliver. . . . This is simply a wonderful book.” —Terry Kay, author of The Valley of Light

“A rich and original debut novel. Brenda Rickman Vantrease writes with a strong voice, imaginative scope, and an audacious reach about complex characters during a fascinating historical period.” —Valerie Miner, author of The Low Road

“The Illuminator is a novel with something for every reader. It has young love, older love, political plot and intrigue, and religious and philosophical conflict presented as grand adventure. . . . Each detail is telling, pitch perfect, important. The relationships are complex, engrossing. Vantrease's feel for time and place is natural. This book absolutely glows.” —Frances Sherwood, author of The Book of Splendor

Publishers Weekly
A medieval illuminator with radical views finds himself sharing quarters with a widow struggling to preserve her independence in this enthralling historical novel set in the 14th century, a time of religious strife. Lady Kathryn, mistress of Blackingham Manor in East Anglia, must be practical to ensure the future of her 15-year-old twin sons. Little as she cares for the money-grubbing worthies of the local abbey, she is happy to do them a favor by taking in a master illuminator as lodger. Finn, a widower with a 16-year-old daughter, proves to be a congenial guest. He is educated, perceptive and kind-and soon, irresistible to Kathryn. Their subsequent passionate affair blinds them to the romance developing between Finn's innocent daughter, Rose, and Kathryn's pious son, Colin. Meanwhile, the unsolved murder of an unscrupulous priest on the manor grounds puts everyone in jeopardy, and Finn's secret sympathy with John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers, who champion an English translation of the Scriptures, endangers his livelihood, not to mention his life. Kathryn's plainspoken fortitude and warring loyalties to lover and sons make her a compelling figure, and Vantrease's secondary characters are brilliantly sketched as well: confused Colin; his carousing brother, Alfred; Agnes, Lady Kathryn's cook and confidante since childhood; Half-Tom, a courageous dwarf. In Vantrease's medieval England, justice is determined by the powerful; violence is a first, not a last, resort; and love must take second place to duty. This is an absorbing, expertly told tale, plainly and forthrightly written and embroidered with plenty of homespun detail. Agent, Harvey Klinger. Foreign rights sold in 10 countries. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
At the center of this remarkable first novel is the story of the gradual adoption of the English language by the Norman ruling classes of England in the 14th century, not a painless process with wars, plagues, two competing popes, and the most famous of civil uprisings, the Peasant's Revolt of 1381. Dame Kathryn of Blackingham, a widow with her own small estate, tries to keep afloat during this turmoil, fending off avaricious suitors (she avoids one by shamming the plague), corrupt priests, and robbers. To make ends meet, she takes in two boarders, Finn and his daughter, Rose. A manuscript illuminator working for the local monastery, Finn is also secretly illustrating the English words of John Wycliffe, a radical cleric who believes that the Bible should be translated into the language of the common people. Such an act is dangerous because it threatens the Church's authority. Vantrease, a former librarian, depicts this complex period with imagination and care, realistically presenting actual historical figures like Wycliffe and Julian of Norwich while avoiding formulaic devices of fiction. In the level of detail, pacing, and personal narratives set amid historical events, her book is similar to the novels of Cecelia Holland (Jerusalem). Strongly recommended for most public libraries. [See Q&A with Vantrease on p. 77 and Prepub Alert, LJ 12/04. Vantrease is not the only ex-librarian writing historical fiction about the Middle Ages: see also Barbara Reichmuth Geisler's Graven Images, reviewed in the Mystery column on p. 70.-Ed.]-Mary K. Bird-Guilliams, Wichita P.L., KS Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Let loose thy jerkins and bodices: this long, lax, chatty first novel has a medieval tale to spin and an unlikely hero and heroine with which to spin it. Ladies get lonely once their husbands are slain in knightly duels across the sea. But never fear: for the lonely lady, Kathryn, there's a dwarf, an artist, a cleric, and a whole mess of intrigue to help her pass the time. The artist in question, the center of the tale, is an illuminator of manuscripts who has a full-time gig working for the local episcopate. But, just as there "was some what thought Holy Church had too much property," our illuminator, Finn, has been off to the wars in France and, in the autumn of his years, has little patience with authority, which is why Oxford don John Wycliffe's notion that there should be a Bible accessible to the laity seems a good one indeed. For his part, Wycliffe has the requisite soul-searching bouts over the project: "Could it be pride, intellectual arrogance, and not God, that called him to such a gargantuan task?" Maybe, but it could also be the endless machinations of John of Gaunt, everyone's favorite Lancastrian, that push Wycliffe and his illuminator onward. Enter the clerical police and inquisitors, who become ever more interested once one of their number turns up dead. The premise is intriguing, but Vantrease's tale has a by-the-numbers feel to it, with set pieces, set characters, and set descriptions (among them detailed views of the sweat-drenched, well-formed bosoms of the local nobility) filling her pages. As her story develops, Vantrease works in some promising twists, including one that speaks to the history of "hidden Jews" in medieval Europe, but in the end the story is overlongand underdone. Aspire to the heights of Name of the Rose it doth, but this confection feels like a blend of genre romance and a forgotten episode of Brother Caedfael.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


John Wycliffe put down his pen and rubbed tired eyes. The candle burned low, spitting tendrils of smoke. It would burn only minutes longer, and it was the last. Only the middle of the month, and he'd exhausted his allotment. As master of Balliol College, Oxford University, he was afforded what would be adequate for most clerics--for most, who worked by day and slept by night. But Wycliffe scarcely slept during the nighttime hours. Purpose drove him from his bed early and kept him from it late.

The orange glow from the charcoal brazier did little to dispel the twilight thickening in the corners of his Spartan chambers. The candle sputtered and guttered out. The girl would be here soon. He could send her to the chandler, paying out of his own purse. He would not call attention to his work by begging more from the bursar or borrowing from colleagues.

At least the chargirl's delay gave him a much-needed respite. The muscles in his hand ached from holding the quills. His head hurt from squinting in the dim light, and his body was stiff from hours bent over his desk. Even his spirit was fatigued. As always, when he grew tired, he began to question his mission. Could it be pride, intellectual arrogance, and not God, that called him to such a gargantuan task? Or had he simply been pushed down this treacherous path by the machinations of the duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt? The duke was on his way to gaining a kingdom and had no wish to share its wealth with a greedy Church. But it was no sin, Wycliffe reasoned, to accept the patronage of such a man, not when together they could break the tyranny of the priests and bishops and archbishops. John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, would do it to serve himself. But John Wycliffe would do it to save the soul of England.

King Edward's death had been a blessing, in spite of the political struggle now going on between the boy king's uncles. Too much lasciviousness had swirled around Edward; the taint of sin corrupted his court. He had consorted openly with his mistress. It was rumored Alice Perrers was a great beauty, but Wycliffe thought her the devil's tool. What black arts had the scheming baggage practiced to gain the soul of a king? At least with Edward's death, Alice Perrers was gone from the cesspool that had been his court. John of Gaunt was now regent. And John of Gaunt was on his side.

For now.

Wycliffe pushed his chair away from the desk. He faced the window that looked out over Oxford. From below, he heard revelers, students with too much ale already in their bellies and now in pursuit of more, though where they got the money for an endless supply was a mystery to him. He guessed they drank the cheapest, the last pouring, though it would take more of that than a fat man's belly could hold to produce such an excess of exuberance. For a moment, he almost envied them their innocence, their wanton joy, their singular lack of purpose.

The girl should be here soon. She was already an hour late. He judged this by the deep indigo reflected in the window--a glazed window to honor his station. He could have translated two whole pages from the Vulgate in that time--two more pages to add to the packet going to East Anglia on the morrow. He was pleased with the work the illuminator had done for him. Not too ornate, yet beautiful, worthy of the text. How he loathed the profane antics of beast and bird and fool inserted for amusement in the marginalia, the ostentatious colors, the lavishness that the Paris Guild produced. This illuminator worked cheaper than the Paris masters, too. And the duke said he could be trusted to be discreet.

Voices drifted up from below, laughter, a snatch of song, then receded. Surely the girl would not be much longer. He must finish more of the translation tonight. He was halfway through the Book of John. Shadows flickered around the room. His eyelids drooped.

Jesus had faced down the temple priests. Wycliffe could face down a pope. Or two.

The coals shifted in the brazier, whispered to him. 'Souls perish while you dawdle.'

He dozed before the glowing embers.

John knew that she was late as she rushed up the stairs to Master Wycliffe's chamber. She hoped that he was so busily engaged with his writing that he would not notice, but she had seen no candle glow from his window. Sometimes, he hardly noticed she was there as she collected his soiled linen, swept his floor, emptied his chamber pot. Wouldn't it just be her luck that today he would be in one of his rare moods, asking about her family, how they spent heir Sundays, if any of them could read?

It wasn't that she resented his curiosity--in spite of his abrupt manner, he had kind eyes, and when he called her "child" he reminded her of her father who had died last year--but today, she didn't want to talk to him. She was sure to cry and besides, he would not approve, she thought, as she fingered the relic hanging from a ribbon attached to a hemp string. It girdled her waist like a rosary.

She smoothed her unbound hair beneath its shabby linen cap, took a deep breath, and knocked lightly on the oaken door. When she heard no response, she rapped again, louder, cleared her throat. "Master Wycliffe, it's me, Joan. I've come to clean your lodgings."

She tried the handle on the door, and finding it unbarred, opened it just a crack.

"Master Wycliffe?"

From the interior gloom, gruffly: "Come in, child. You are late. We waste time."

"I'm so sorry, Master Wycliffe. But it's my mother, you see. She's very ill. And there's only me to see to the little ones."

She scurried about the room while he watched, lighting the rush lights, their flames flickering as she opened the window and slung out the contents of his chamber pot. She collected his soiled linen into a bundle, conscious of his eyes on her. She never disturbed the papers on his desk. She had learned that the hard way.

"Shall I replace the candle, sir?"

"Umph. I've naught to replace it with. I've been waiting for you. So you could fetch more."

"I'm sorry. I'll go right away."

She hoped he would not report her tardiness. Who knew when her mother would be well enough to return to her own work as a charwoman. He turned his chair away from the window to face her, held up his hand in a halting gesture. "Your mother is ill, you say?"

"Her fever is very high." She blinked back tears, then blurted out her confession. "I've been to Saint Anne's to beg the priest to pray for her.

His mouth pressed into a tight line above the gray hairs of his beard. The priest's prayers are no better than yours. Perhaps not as good. Yours may well come from a purer heart."

He stood up, towering over her, austere in his plain robe and tight woolen cap that scarcely covered the gray hair flowing over his shoulders and mingling with his beard.

"What's that you have hanging on your belt?" he asked.

"My belt, sir?"

"Beneath your arm. Something that you call attention to in trying to conceal."

Copyright (c) 2005 by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

Meet the Author

Brenda Rickman Vantrease lives in Nashville, Tennessee. The Illuminator, her first novel, was a Booksense Pick in hardcover and is being translated into eleven languages.

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Illuminator 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's the late 14th century, and the winds of religious and social change are beginning to whisper across Europe. The conflicts that result are the basis of this story of love, both spiritual and secular, in England at that time. The characters are beautifully drawn, the story is well-researched, and the plot is an engaging one. What a treat to have a 'new' historical novelist to read! I look forward to this book's sequel, The Mercy Seller.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Our book group read this book as an historical fiction because we had not found many books about the 1300-1400 time period that dealt with more than just Kings and Queens!!! We just fell in love with the story line and the author's wonderful writing. We hope she continues to write more and more and more as we are now awaiting her second book to come out in paperback so that we can read it as a group. I succumbed to the hardback and was not a bit sorry that I did. I hope this series goes on for more books to enjoy. We had wonderful conversations with all aspects of this book--so much so that we decided to stay a little longer just so we could catch up with each other!!!! I just can not believe that she is not a best seller!!! Were is her publicist!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book at B@N because I liked the cover. I ended up falling in love with the book and the characters. This is so well written, the characters are real and engaging, the history is fascinating. I felt like i really learned something after reading this. I would give this ten stars if i could!!! I can't wait to receive the sequel to this book. I hope she writes more!!
harstan More than 1 year ago
Late in the fourteenth century, Lady Kathryn struggles to maintain her small East Anglia estate so that her fifteen years old twin sons Colin and Alfred have a future. To accomplish her objective and stay on the good side of the local abbey, Kathryn accepts two guests at her home, widower Finn a master illuminator, and his sixteen years old daughter Rose.................... Finn and Kathryn hit it off from the start as the two kindhearted souls tumble into an affair of the heart while the devout Colin and Rose are also attracted to one another. However, as Finn works for the nearby abbey, he is also a strong secret supporter of heretic John Wycliffe, who wants the Church¿s fundamental scriptures put into the common speak of the people. Finn is translating a version in English that if he is caught is certain death for him and potentially for his hostess and his daughter......................... Set during a period of unrest (the Peasant's Revolt of 1381), this is a fabulous historical work of fiction that brings to life a pivotal moment in the history of England; whether the Norman rulers will choose English as the state and religious language or not. The prime characters enable the reader to grasp the nuances of the age as duty comes before love and conflict resolution means the strong do more than just survive; they take what they want including an unprotected widow who must use her wit to elude suitors who see her estate up for grabs. Brenda Rickman Vantrease illuminates the medieval era with a deep tale that sub-genre readers will cherish.................... Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
From time to time an audio book appears on the scene that is cause for celebration - 'The Illuminator' as read by Simon Jones deserves many loud huzzahs. The pairing of voice performer and story is perfection. Listeners will want to hear it several times and then pass it along to friends with the heartiest recommendation. British actor Jones, who reads both the Abridged and Unabridged editions, has a rich professional history. He attended Cambridge where he was a member of the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club (as were John Cleese and Stephen Fry). His credits include stage roles in London's West End and, of course, on Broadway. He has been acclaimed for his appearances on BBC radio and, to date, has read over 50 audio books. Jones's voice is, naturally, British. It's sturdy, if you will, strong, suave, and sophisticated when called for. It's a joy for the ear. His performance of this Renaissance tale will undoubtedly win him numerous more fans among audio book aficionados. Author Vantrease, a former English teacher and librarian, must love her subject as she imbues her story with glowing detail. She sets the tale in England during the late 14th century. This was a time when the royals and the church ruled. It was also a time years before the printing press when books were treasures to be enjoyed only by the privileged. Books were laboriously hand printed and illustrated. Thus, one who did this sort of work was respected and a master craftsman, such a person was Finn. The church was Finn's master, or so it was believed. He also secretly worked for John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar who wanted to make the Bible available to everyone - heresy! Finn finds lodging with a widow, Lady Kathryn, mistress of Buckingham Manor. She has teenage twin sons; he has a teenage daughter. Of course, romance will blossom. Passion is not exclusive to the young as Kathryn finds herself drawn to Finn. Their liaison is clouded by the murder of a priest on her property, and Finn's allegiance to Wycliffe. Historical drama comes to life via the pen of Brenda Rickman Vantrease, and is given exciting voice by Simon Jones. - Gail Cooke
Guest More than 1 year ago
This richly textured and well-researched novel, set at the time of the translation of the Bible into English (a task done at no small risk) does so much more than deliver an interesting historical storyâ¿¿though THE ILLUMINATOR does that well, too. Brenda Vantrease's characters come alive on the page and nearly walk off it, from brave Lady Katharine and the charming Finnâ¿¿the Illuminator of the titleâ¿¿to Finn's daughter Rose, the midget Half-Tom, Kathrynâ¿¿s sons, and even the kitchen staff. There is love and intrigue, art and religion, a dead husband and a dead priestâ¿¿not to mention lovely writing throughout and an ending that will leave you in tears. A novel you will sink into and not want to leave.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked the depth and breadth of the themes woven into this novel. Politics, history, religion, a bit of romance, multi-generation family tales, etc. I was eager to read the next 2 books in this "saga".... the books bring a fascinating time period to life. I recommend this to anyone looking for a great historical fiction book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought the characters and dialog were under-developed and unrealistic. More time was given to the history than the actual characters driving the story. It was fine for a library book, but I'm glad I didn't buy it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you're a fan of historical fiction, especially England, then this book is for you. This novel takes place during the 14th century and includes a list characters who are really brought to life for the reader. The story takes place during a time period when copies of the bible were scarce and those scribes & artisans who painstakingly copied bibles were always in harms way, always working in secrecy and putting themselves at risk. This was a wonderful read just as The Mercy Seller (by the same author) was a wonderful read. I'm so happy to have found a new author of historical fiction.
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juabbebu More than 1 year ago
If you like history about Britain in the 1300-1600, this book is for you. I love the way false religion is exposed as ruthless and controlling. And it hasn't changed much!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and was constantly carving out time to read it, but when I got to the ending I felt like I had wasted all that time. The ending didn't seemed planned to me. It was very underdeveloped.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Illuminator is extremely well written and I was thoroughly engrossed during my journey. Many historical fictions read like the History Channel. This well-researched book¿s narration blended like an additional character with a personality. The author¿s extraordinary use of the English language made the pages come alive. Prepare to escape to fourteenth century England.