The Mercy Seller

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In the fifteenth century, with religious intolerance spreading like wildfire across Europe, English-born Anna Bookman and her grandfather, Finn, earn a living in Prague by illuminating precious books, including forbidden translations of the Bible. Finn subscribes to the heresy that people ought to be able to read the Word of God for themselves, without having to pay a priest for the privilege, but holding that belief is becoming more and more hazardous. When the authorities start burning books and slaughtering ...

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The Mercy Seller: A Novel

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Overview

In the fifteenth century, with religious intolerance spreading like wildfire across Europe, English-born Anna Bookman and her grandfather, Finn, earn a living in Prague by illuminating precious books, including forbidden translations of the Bible. Finn subscribes to the heresy that people ought to be able to read the Word of God for themselves, without having to pay a priest for the privilege, but holding that belief is becoming more and more hazardous. When the authorities start burning books and slaughtering heretics—-including the man Anna was to marry—-Finn urges her to seek sanctuary in England, but her passage abroad will be anything but easy.

In London, Friar Gabriel dutifully obeys church doctrine by granting pardons . . . for a small fee. But then he is sent undercover on a spying mission to France, where Anna has set up a temporary stall as a bookseller. Anna has no way of knowing that the wealthy young merchant frequenting her stall is actually a priest—-just as Gabriel does not know he has met the woman who will cause him to doubt his vows.

As Anna continues her journey to England, where the movement to stamp out heresy is growing ever fiercer, Brenda Rickman Vantrease brings us a richly imagined and immensely rewarding novel of love, faith, and dangerous secrets.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A bold first novel, blending a sweeping portrayal of the distant past with intricate family drama . . . Apart from the rich period atmosphere, the story is ample in romance, mystery, and adventure; its characters are full of life and energy."

—-The Boston Globe

"An absorbing, expertly told tale . . . embroidered with plenty of homespun detail."

—-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A remarkable first novel . . . Vantrease . . . depicts this complex period with imagination and care."

—-Library Journal (starred review)

"A remarkable debut novel."

—-The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A richly detailed story . . . [Vantrease's] details and deft storytelling create a luminescent and very readable portrait of a dark time in history."

—-Booklist

"A fabulous historical work of fiction that brings to life a pivotal moment in the history of England."

—-Midwest Book Review

"If you liked The Birth of Venus . . . you'll love The Illuminator."

—-GoodHousekeeping.com

"Reading The Illuminator is a bit like standing in the Cloisters in New York gazing at the Unicorn Tapestries. . . . Brenda Rickman Vantrease has written a debut novel of fourteenth-century England—-just as colorfully written as the tapestries are strikingly embroidered."

—-The Tennessean

Publishers Weekly
In this overly complex but engaging sequel to The Illuminator, Friar Gregory, a 15th-century priest and seller of indulgences, is enlisted to root out an alleged heretic, but his devotion to the church can't override his misgivings. When the unscrupulous Archbishop Arundel suspects Sir John Oldcastle of being in league with the heretical Lollards (they distribute-to the horror of Rome-vernacular translations of the scripture), he dispatches Gregory to build a case. As Gregory looks for evidence, a parallel story unfolds in Prague, where the illuminator from Vantrease's first novel is now an old man whose adult granddaughter, Anna, he has trained as a copyist in the Lollard tradition. As persecution of the Lollards intensifies, Anna is dispatched to England (and Oldcastle's protection). Anna's and Gregory's paths cross in France, where the friar finds his vows at the breaking point, with repercussions that propel the rest of the story. The story is carefully researched, but the establishment of so many characters and the social and religious complexities of the time overwhelms the first half of the novel. Vantrease tells an engaging story and paints a vivid picture of 15th-century Europe, but what she doesn't manage to achieve is a balance between the two. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The many readers who liked Vantrease's debut, The Illuminator, set in 14th-century England, will be pleasantly surprised by this satisfying sequel. The love affair between the Illuminator, Finn, and the noble Kathryn ended with Finn fleeing the country to avoid religious persecution, believing Kathryn dead. This novel opens in Prague almost two decades later and features Anna, a young copyist readers will recognize as the baby Finn took with him—the child of his daughter and Kathryn's son. A new wave of persecution catches Anna's intended husband, who had burned indulgences with other dissidents. While this unfortunate's head ends up on a pike by the river, Finn dies peacefully at home after extracting a promise from Anna to seek out an English sympathizer to the Lollard cause, Sir John Oldham. Across the Channel, a young Dominican friar (the titular mercy seller) ordered to bring Sir John down is sent to the Continent disguised as a merchant and meets Anna. The same lovely period detail and attention to historical realities of the first book are here maintained. An author's note clarifies the few liberties taken with the historical record and tells us the grim fate of Sir Oldham. Recommended for all public libraries.
—Mary Kay Bird-Guilliams
Kirkus Reviews
Female scribe finds heretical love in Vantrease's engrossing follow-up to The Illuminator (2005). In early-15th-century Prague, Anna, granddaughter of Finn the Illuminator, copies, translates and draws ornate designs on manuscripts. She and a small band of students are under suspected of copying heretical texts, among them the Wycliffe, or Lollard Bible. This vernacular text is banned by Rome because it allows the Latin-illiterate laity to read the Gospels, in which they will find no scriptural basis for Purgatory or indulgences. When Anna's fiance is executed for burning indulgences, her dying grandfather urges her to seek out Sir John Oldcastle, a Lollard sympathizer, in England. Anna reaches France with a band of Gypsies, one of whom pulled her from the river after a suicide attempt. In Rheims, she encounters cloth merchant VanCleve, who is actually a Dominican friar, and a sometime indulgence-seller named Gabriel. A spy sent to France by Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury to look for Lollards, Gabriel commissions a forbidden text from Anna, but his mission is impeded by his growing attraction to her. After forsaking Gabriel's vow of chastity, "VanCleve" departs. Anna travels to England, where she is taken in by Oldcastle and Lady Joan, his lusty wife. Now pregnant, Anna finds work at Rochester Priory, where Lollard nuns are busy transcribing what they shouldn't. Their Abbess, Mother Kathryn, turns out to be Anna's grandmother. Will Gabriel discover the secret of his birth and its curious parallels to his current dilemma? Will he meet Anna again and defrock them both?Readers will agree that answers, and the Reformation, can't come soon enough.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312331931
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/6/2007
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.61 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Brenda Rickman Vantrease is a former English teacher and librarian who has traveled extensively in Europe and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Her first novel, The Illuminator, was translated into fifteen languages and chosen as a Book Sense 2006—2007 Reading Group Pick.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Prague, Bohemia

July 1412

The Avon to the Severn runs,

The Severn to the sea,

And Wycliffe's dust shall spread abroad,

Wide as the waters be.

—FROM AN ADDRESS BY

DANIEL WEBSTER (1849)

Anna never went to the hrad, the great walled castle on the western hill overlooking Prague. It hunched just across the Vltava River, a world away. Nor did she go to the great cathedral standing guard over the castle lest she encounter the dread archbishop. Zybnek. The burner of books.

Anna attended mass at Taryn Church or met with the rest of Prague's dissidents at Bethlehem Chapel. After Zybnek's great bonfire of the Wycliffe tracts and the translated gospels, Lollard texts the Church called them, heretical texts because they charged papal corruption and challenged priestly authority, Hus had warned his growing congregation, "The day will surely come when Rome's prelates are not content to burn the Word but seek out for their fires those who would bring the Word to the people. We must pray for the strength to stand for our beliefs. We must fasten our courage against such a day."

Her grandfather had warned his little clutch of scholars and translators too, chastising them for their careless zeal.

And wasn't he the one to talk!

After all, it was he, her own grandfather, Finn the Illuminator, Finn the Lollard scribe, who, along with Master Jerome, had started Prague's secret enterprise to disseminate the banned translations. As a young exchange student, Jerome had returned to his Czech homeland from Oxford, bringing with him the Lollard texts. The Trialogus and De Ecclesia of John Wycliffe. Banned in England, they'd found new life at the new university at Prague. Its rector, Jan Hus, had translated the condemned texts, along with a good portion of the gospels, into Czech. And for years, right under the archbishop's nose, her own grandfather, a refugee from a long-ago brush with English Lollardy, had gathered a wellspring of university dissidents into his little town house, where they copied the banned pages.

Anna glanced at the castle and the cathedral spires of Saint Vitus standing sentinel behind it. She shivered even in the summer heat. But she would not think about the monster on the hill today. Not on a day when the sunlight flung dancing diamonds on the water and no smell of burning tainted the air. Not on a day when the birds wheeled in joyful circles above the river, their wing tips flirting with cloud pillows.

Not on a day when she was meeting Martin.

She turned her back to the castle and looked downriver. In the distance she could make out a camp of some sort, likely pilgrims traversing Christendom to any number of shrines—Jerusalem the holiest—in penance. That was what sinners did, sinners who could not afford to purchase expiation from the Church.

From the town sprawled on her left a familiar figure approached, but not the figure for whom she was looking. "Master Jerome! I thought Martin was coming," she said, feeling her face redden, her disappointment all too obvious.

"Martin is otherwise occupied, it seems," the gray-haired master said wearily. He handed her the bag that held the translated texts to be copied at the next meeting. "Thank you for doing my laundry, mistress," he said loudly.

Who knew the carp in the river had eyes and ears? Or that the woodcutter hauling his cart across the stone bridge might be a spy for the archbishop? But she bit back her sarcasm. She would not belittle him for his excess of caution. She had too much respect for all he had accomplished.

Anna took the university master's "laundry" and was about to bid him good afternoon when she heard rapid footsteps approaching from the other end of the bridge. She turned to see a lone figure running toward them as though the devil gave chase. Seconds later Martin joined them beneath the sheltering shade of the gate tower. He was gasping for breath and his face was flushed and his black hair fell in an unruly wave across his forehead.

"I'm sorry, Master Jerome. I was detained—"

"You didn't have time to put on your cap?" Anna pushed Martin's hair away from his forehead with her hand, a ruse to caress his face.

"I lost it. But in good cause," he said, breathing heavily. Winking at Anna, he sucked in air and lowered his voice to an almost whisper. "I'll show you at the meeting— No. I can't wait. I have to show it to you now." He drew them deeper into the shadowy hollow of the tower gate and pulled from his plain brown student's doublet a black velvet packet. It was marked with a Jerusalem cross.

"Put that away," Jerome hissed. "How did you come by it?"

"Is that what I think it is?" Anna asked, not remembering to lower her voice. "I've never even seen one. May I see it?"

Alarm showed in Jerome's face. "Not here, Martin! You didn't—"

"No, we didn't hurt the pardoner, didn't even scruff him up—well maybe a couple of . . . you know, smallish bruises. He was just setting up shop outside Saint Vitus Cathedral. Stasik kicked him in his shins, and the pardoner dropped his 'grace notes.' While he was nursing his shins—he even curses in Latin—we took off down Crooked Alley. Stasik made for New Town. I headed for Old Town. As easy as taking pennies from a blind beggar."

You'd be more likely to give pennies to a blind beggar, Anna thought, but kept silent, letting him enjoy his moment.

Martin was grinning broadly as he darted glances across the bridge to assure himself he had not been followed. As was usual in the heat of the midafternoon, the bridge was deserted except for the woodsman who was exiting on the other end and a beggar who sat at the gate on the other side of the river.

Anna could see from Jerome's scowl that he was not impressed. "Fool, do you want to bring the archbishop down on our heads? Wait till Finn hears what you've done. This is not our way." He snatched the little packet of papal indulgences and hid them quickly in his shirt.

At the mention of her grandfather's name, some of Martin's bravado vanished.

Jerome's gray eyebrows bunched together in a scowl. "I don't think such exploits will weigh in your favor when the illuminator seeks a husband for his granddaughter."

He was nothing if not direct. Not now. Not ever.

Martin's smile vanished quickly.

"I want to see one, Master Jerome," Anna said. "All my life I've heard my grandfather and you ranting about the pope's sale of indulgences to finance his wars, as though they were written by the devil's own hand, and I've never even seen one."

The old man looked at her and shook his head. "You're as stupid as your suitor. You deserve each other," he said. "Just pray I'm not arrested before I can dispose of them."

"Please, Master Jerome. Bring them to the next meeting. Let us all see what it is we are risking so much to rid the world of. Then you can burn them. We'll have a little bonfire of our own."

She smiled at him, her wheedling smile, the same smile she had used from childhood on her grandfather to push him through the occasional cloud of melancholy that sometimes descended upon their little house in the town square. "Please. A wee little bonfire of our own. Sweet revenge. To rally our troops."

"Methinks our troops have a surfeit of rallying." That was his parting jibe, but his scowl had lightened somewhat.

"He'll bring them," Anna said as the old master walked away.

"Of course he will. How could he resist such pretty pouting? I know I couldn't." Martin reached up and touched her lips with the tip of his finger, bent forward as if to kiss her.

She pushed him away. "Not here, Martin. Somebody will see. Besides, we are not betrothed. Not yet. Not until Dĕdeček gives his consent."

"Aye," he said, letting his arms drop to his side. "Your grandfather. And therein lies the curdle in the coddle."

Now it was his turn to pout. She resisted the urge to kiss the pout away.

"I don't think he likes me overmuch," Martin said.

His lips were full, and round, and cherry ripe.

"Don't be silly. He likes you, Martin. He just thinks you're a little headstrong. He thinks nobody can take care of me the way he does."

"Well, for my coin, putting you in the middle of a twice-weekly meeting of heretics is not taking very good care. Why do you call him Dĕdeček, anyway? I thought both of you were English?"

She reached for his hand. "Come on. You can walk me back to my door," she said, leading him. "I have called him that since we first came here, when I was a child. Besides, I don't feel English, even though my grandmother was from England too. She was a grand lady and lived in a manor house. But I wouldn't want to live there. I can't imagine living anywhere but here with you and Dĕdeček."

He glanced up at the castle on the hill, his eyes widening in mock terror. "Don't tell me I'll be taking a blue blood to bed as wife."

"My grandmother was lesser nobility. But we climbed down from that hill long ago. If you take me, you will be taking a humble artisan's granddaughter to wife—with a dowry to match."

"Well, that's a relief. Not the dowry part, maybe." He grinned. "Did you know her?"

"My English grandmother? Only her name, Kathryn. She was not Dĕdeček's wife. His wife was named Rebekka, and she died giving birth to my mother. Kathryn was my father's mother, but she and Dĕdeček knew each other. I think they were lovers. Though he seldom speaks of her, I think he loved her very much. She died when I was hardly more than a babe. I have this faint memory—more dream than memory—of her singing to me. She called me 'poppet' or 'moppet' or something. And she took me to see Dĕdeček. He was shut up in some kind of castle."

Anna looked up at the hrad and shivered. The sun had gone behind one of the pillow clouds, turning its underbelly gray. The castle looked even more menacing under the sunless sky. "A castle on a hill like that but more . . . fortified. 'Castle Prison,' they called it. Whenever I think of England, I think of that awful place."

"Did you know your parents?"

She shook her head. "My mother died when I was born. I was scarcely old enough to walk when my father died."

"In battle?"

She wished he hadn't brought it up. She didn't like thinking about it, but she supposed if he were to be her husband he was entitled to know her history.

"He died in the Lollard cause. Killed by the bishop's soldiers. Kathryn died in a peasant rebellion when they burned her manor house. The Church blamed the Lollards for the uprising and killed everyone they could find. My grandfather and I escaped from England to the Continent."

Martin whistled low. "So you come from a royal line of heretics. And your grandfather continues in the cause. A wonder that he never returned to England. Old Jerome says in England some of the nobility have embraced the idea of reform. It might be easier there."

"He says there is nothing for him there but painful memories. Why should we want to leave Prague? We have been happy here. He has his art and his friends from the university. I have friends here too."

She tried to make her tone teasing, playful, but talk of so much death had spoiled the mood. As they neared the square, he slid his arm around her waist, pulling her back toward the cover of the twisting street. She shook her head and pointed to the great two-faced astronomical clock.

"Hurry, Martin. Look. It's almost three o'clock. My grandfather will be worried, and he gets cross when he's worried. Besides, I still have to prepare his supper. It will have to be fish now; there's no time for anything else."

The sun did not reemerge from behind the cloud, and suddenly it seemed to Anna that the joy—like the sunlight—had drained from the day.

"Don't walk with me the rest of the way. You do not want him to think you're the reason that he must have fish and not a nicely roasted joint for supper."

"No. I want him in a good mood for what I have to ask him," he said. "Why shouldn't I ask him now? Before he finds out about the fish?"

Anna looked across the street at their little town house of baked brick and half-timbers with its pretty carved door standing open to the square. By now her grandfather would have finished his day's work, cleaned his brushes, neatly stacked his paint pots along the window ledge, and would be napping in his chair.

"Not now, Martin. Give me a chance to prepare him."

He frowned. "That's what you said last week, Anna. How much longer do you want me to wait?"

"Just a few days more, I promise." She reached up again and brushed his hair away from his eyes—eyes that flashed his frustration as she turned to leave.

Now I'll have both of them angry. In trying to please both, I've pleased neither. She sighed as she hitched up her skirt so she could make it to the fishmonger before he closed shop for the day.

Copyright © 2007 by Brenda Rickman Vantrease. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 12 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2012

    Well written, poorly typed

    The nook version of this book has innumerable typos.

    However, I enjoyed tye story.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2009

    Really enjoyed this book.

    This is yet another author I will be looking for in the future. Good read if you like historical novels.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 18, 2012

    Beautiful and engrossing

    This book along with THE ILLUMANATOR and THE HERETICS WIFE provide a revealing insight into the history of people fighting to read the Bible in their own language. They are beautifully written and engrossing novels weaving characters into real and dangerous historical eras. The author holds your attention through out the three stories developing the characters into real people. I highly recommend them to anyone who likes historical novels.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2007

    A reviewer

    When I signed up for this book, I said that I would love it or hate it. Well, I not only loved it, I thoroughly liked it too!! This time period--1412-1417 is not often written about in historical fiction from this point of view. The connection in Prague with the Jewish community, and the connection in England with Harry V and John Wycliffe was intricately woven and very interesting to read about. It was a very refreshing point of view. The copying of books, and Bibles in the 'people's languages' in specific, sure caused a great stir. Yet today this is still the biggest best selling book ever! All readers and book lovers should find this really interesting. Then the love story between the book copier's daughter and the 'Spy' was fabulous!! They were such rich and deeply thoughtful and tender characters. I have already told two of my book groups that we will be reading this book. I also want to read her earlier work--THE ILLUMINATOR--as I assume that it is the beginning of this book with the book copier being called 'the Illuminator' in this story. Also, I have only read one previous book that goes into the lives of Kathryn and Jerome before . Their lives are fascinating also. So much enjoyment in such a fine book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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