Peter Schoeffer is a scribe in Paris, good at his work and starting to become known in his field, when his adoptive father, Johann Fust, calls him back to Mainz, Germany. Fust is a wealthy merchant who sees the promise in Gutenberg's latest invention and he wants his foster son to not only apprentice in the new art but also to serve as his eyes and ears in the workshop. Peter is bitter at first and worried that what they are doing is the devil's work but as he comes to understand the process and its implications for the city of Mainz, each church, and indeed, people all over, he grows as invested in the art of printing as he ever was in being a scribe. But the path to the Bible was not a straight one. The expenses for starting up this newfangled press were staggering and threatened to mushroom out of control before anything was ever printed. The Bible itself was not originally the work intended to be printed but the church's internal wrangling over reform and unchecked greed made it impossible for anything but God's Own Word. The time consuming nature of the work, although significantly faster than scribing, was also against them. The secrecy in which the workshop had to toil was precarious but vital. And the growing enmity and lack of trust between the partners, Fust and Gutenberg, pulled at Peter and caused him stress.
Christie has done a beautiful job laying out the political climate of the time and the struggle between religious and secular interests. She has captured the corruption and greed that defined the late medieval church and which would, in a few short years, result in the Reformation. She shows the guilds growing in power to challenge the established church and the price that the common man paid in this struggle. Gutenberg is shown as visionary but crafty, self-serving, and eager for fame and fortune. Fust starts off lenient and willing to invest greatly in the venture but grows increasingly impatient and mercenary when he tots up his probable losses. And Peter, who owes much to both men, is torn, his loyalty divided and tested. The frame device, whereby Peter tells the tale of the Bibles to a curious monk some twenty or thirty years after the events and after the deaths of both Fust and Gutenberg, allows him to reflect on the way that they each contributed to history and to finally see the good and ill of each decision from the vantage of a more impartial time, reflecting on the miracle that it lasted only the span of time that it required.
Mainz and the surrounding areas were well described and the details of how the press worked and the technique involved in making all aspects of the book perfect were fascinating. The tightrope they all walked in keeping the rapacious archbishop ignorant enough of their work to continue on without interference lends tension to a plot, the outcome of which all of history records. Peter is a wonderful narrator, having a foot in both camps, truly understanding the monumental achievement towards which they strove, and having to learn everything just as the reader does. Historical fiction readers will appreciate the bringing to life of the major players in the birth of the printing press, the intriguing and fraught tale of Gutenberg's famous Bible, and the beginning of the publishing industry and readily accessible books. Then they'll want to lay eyes on one of the remaining Gutenberg Bibles themselves. I know I do!
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.