–Post by Molly
David Liss left his dissertation on 18th century British literature to write historical detective novels full-time, and after enjoying many of his novels, I firmly believe he made the right choice. His first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and he has now written eight novels, almost all of which are firmly immersed in an eighteenth century world. Liss has recently published his first novel since 2011’s The Twelfth Enchantment, and his new book, The Day of Atonement, makes for a perfect Jewish New Year read.
While Benjamin Weaver, the thief-taker hero of many of Liss’ books, makes a cameo appearance, The Day of Atonement is a stand-alone novel. The plot follows Sebastian Foxx, born Sebastião Raposa, raised and trained by Benjamin Weaver. Ten years before, at a tender age, Sebastian was forced to flee Lisbon after the arrest of his converso parents by the Portuguese Inquisition. After years of anger, a new commitment to practicing Judaism, and not much resolution of his childhood traumas, Foxx decides to return to Portugal and find his revenge. Sebastian aims to not only avenge himself against his family’s betrayer, but also to target a priest of the Inquisition, and possibly reconnect with his lost lady love. Upon his arrival in Lisbon, Sebastian quickly becomes tied in the fortunes of those around him and builds a group of allies to aid him in his quest. As the novel continues, Foxx finds himself embroiled in complex schemes and facing much more than a simple quest as he weighs his own goals against the safety of those around him.
Liss’ enthusiasm for the time period is present in every corner of this novel. He carefully constructs the world of eighteenth-century Portugal in a way that brings the Lisbon setting alive while also firmly grounding the reader in the novel’s historical context. A small brushing-up on the Portuguese Inquisition may be in order (I scanned the Wikipedia page), but the plot is as engaging as the historical context is detailed, and readers at all levels of interest in the time period will find Day of Atonement to be just as satisfying as the rest of David Liss’s oeuvre.
While I was reading The Day of Atonement, I couldn’t figure out if the book was more of a Jewish version of The Count of Monte Cristo or a Inquisition pastiche of Europa, Europa mixed in with Inglourious Bastards, but whichever of these comparisons you choose to appreciate more, know this: David Liss can write some seriously ass-kicking Jewish characters. Despite the book’s title, The Day of Atonement may be a bit too enjoyable to read on Yom Kippur itself. I recommend reading it the day after.
Copies of The Day of Atonement are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.