Johann Gutenberg has long been known for the invention of the printing press – a single man given credit for a world-changing creation. In fact, there were two others who were integral to the project, men history has forgotten about, and whom Alix Christie gives life to in this intricate novel. Johann Fust was the financier behind the venture and Peter Schoeffer was the talented scribe who set down the letters of their massive first undertaking – the Bible.
I’m always fascinated by a story of obscure but influential individuals and respect the novel’s ability to give in-depth treatment to seldom-explored lives. I was intrigued by this book from the start – Christie’s letter to the reader about her discovery of this symbiotic trio and how it connected to her own apprenticeship to a master printer. What book lover isn’t going to want to know more about the invention that brought books to the masses and made reading a leisure activity?
Christie does a lot of things right here. There’s a rhythmic confidence to her prose, a natural smoothness that makes the fact that she’s a debut novelist impressive. And the characterization in this book is nothing if not entertaining – Christie perfectly captures the grisly grouch of a man that Gutenberg was, the fact that his crew couldn’t have gotten along without his dictatorial gaze, in spite of the fact that he was largely a figurehead. Gutenberg was a man with both bark and bite and nary an endearing quality about him, but a man who was a visionary all the same. Though Christie mainly sought to explore the inner life of Peter Schoeffer, it’s Gutenberg who came across as the most vivid to me.
There was one major drawback to the novel, I felt – one that detracted from its overall power and readability. It’s extremely dense, with pages of uninterrupted narration about the complexities of printing and the religious and political tensions of the time period. This book badly needed more dialogue, more action, because the little action there was took a long time to happen, buried under passages that weren’t nearly as interesting to this reader as they were to Christie herself. As such, the novel was a long and very slow read, with the reward of an anguished scene between characters far and few in between.
There’s nothing to be done about this, since the book is already in print, but it’s a caveat to inform readers about before they begin. Those who prefer style over plot, with some well-drawn characters mixed in will enjoy this book, I think. It shines a light onto an aspect of history that has since been shrouded in darkness, a period of upheaval, uncertainty but also great promise. The book is bogged down in detail, but equally as obvious is Christie’s reverence of printing. Here is a mixture of both art and craft – the reader should know that going in.
Thanks to HarperCollins Publishers for my review copy and to TLC Book Tours for having me as a host!