The Book of Thomas: Volume One: Heaven by Robert Boyczuk is set in a medieval world ruled by the Catholic Church from Rome, but that world is not ours: it’s a built world of concentric spheres, with heaven the outermost sphere and hell the innermost, and Rome is in the sphere just below Lower Heaven, where the angels live. Its inhabitants accept this state of things as much as medieval scholars in our world accepted the pre-Copernican view of the universe.
The Book of Thomas kind of reads like a Philip Pullman novel set in a world built by Ted Chiang, with a protagonist contributed by Gene Wolfe. A child whose father is murdered by the Church trains as a singer and is brought to Rome, where he quickly falls into plot and intrigue. Sin is omnipresent: Boyczuk’s Church is thoroughly debased and corrupt, and there is quite a bit of sexual violence that some readers will be uncomfortable with. It’s a dark book (ChiZine published it, after all). But Boyczuk’s narrative is gripping and persuasive, even if his narrator-protagonist isn’t sure what’s going on most of the time. Exposition comes over time, without infodumps, as is the proper way of doing things.
There are maps in this book, which I should make note of. Like Wolfe’s Severian, Thomas has an excellent memory, which serves him well in a world where books other than the Bible are prohibited, and knowledge of the various spheres is forbidden knowledge. Maps are something he commits to memory; in one instance he destroys the map after studying it. In another, he is shown a marvellous map of the world, with all its layers, and commanded to memorize its forbidden knowledge for his mission. In its use of memory as a weapon against tyranny, it’s rather redolent of Fahrenheit 451.
This is the first book of a series, which means it ends at a thoroughly maddening point, just after the main characters discover the world-threatening problem they’ve been called upon to solve. There are unresolved points, why-did-the-author-do-this moments that will presumably make sense in subsequent volumes. I think I’ll keep reading.
I received a copy of this book via a Goodreads Giveaway.