The year is 1494. Nadira is a Moorish slave whose late mother taught her to read and write in the hopes of bettering her lot. She lives in Barcelona and keeps the books for her master, Sofir, a recent convert from Judaism to Catholicism. Due to the peculiarities of Nadira’s background, she can read and write in a number of languages. Her humdrum existence comes to an abrupt end when an English gentleman, Lord Montrose, takes her away from Sofir and on a dangerous journey. He seeks a book, the Hermetica of Elysium, though he cannot read it himself; he is looking for it to fulfill his dead brother’s wishes. He will need Nadira’s multilingual skills to identify the Hermetica when he finds it.
Other men are after the Hermetica too — powerful men both secular and religious, desiring the book for a variety of reasons — and they all need Nadira. She is kidnapped multiple times throughout the novel. All these kidnappings can seem a little repetitive, but the real story in The Hermetica of Elysium is Nadira’s development as a character. She becomes more assertive, using her valuable skills as a bargaining chip to achieve her own ends. She is exposed to philosophy in the course of her translating, and opens her mind to new ideas. Finally, she discovers she has magical power.
The Hermetica could be seen as a symbol of knowledge itself. It’s seen as incredibly dangerous, and some seek to possess it while others wish to destroy it. Many fear it, believing it can drive its reader insane. Annmarie Banks uses Nadira’s situation to illustrate how it becomes harder for an aristocracy or a religious hierarchy to oppress people once they have learned to read, think, and question.
I read a finished copy of The Hermetica of Elysium rather than an ARC, so I should mention that there are some issues with the nitty-gritty of the editing: random tense changes; a scene that skips forward several days without transition and would have been less confusing with a line break; a scar that, if I haven’t lost my mind, switches from one man’s face to another’s. The errors were on the level of “mildly distracting.” You can’t quite ignore them, but nor do they ruin the read.
On the whole, The Hermetica of Elysium is an enjoyable debut. I’m reminded of novels such as Judith Merkle Riley’s A Vision of Light; like that earlier book, The Hermetica of Elysium features a strong grounding in history, religious conflict, a little bit of magic, a romance that is down-to-earth and believable, and a heroine who’s too smart for her time.
Annmarie Banks is currently writing a sequel called The Necromancer’s Grimoire which she hopes to release sometime next year.