The Second Sleep by Robert Harris. A medieval priest discovers items that will start a mystery and challenge his beliefs
It is 1468 and a young priest has been dispatched by his bishop to a small village in Wessex, England. The priest’s name is Christopher Fairfax and it is his duty to officiate the funeral of Father Lacy, the former priest of the village.
However, once he gets there, he discovers items that were in Father Lacy’s possession that will start a thrilling mystery and alter his thoughts on the religion that has defined his life.
I first heard about Robert Harris’s book, The Second Sleep, on a radio interview where he was promoting his latest work.
What enamoured me to the story was a passage read from one of the first few chapters. I warn you now this is a little spoiler-y but it has been used as part of the promotion of the book.
Once Fairfax has made it Father Lacy’s home, he investigates the strange items he discovers in a display case, in the bedroom. There are many fabulous pieces of shaped glass, plastic and a particular item which is prominently displayed at the top of the cabinet.
A slab of black glass that fits snugly into Fairfax’s palm. A single button at the bottom of the glass can be depressed but does nothing. Upon flipping the glass over a single motif adorns the back, the form of an apple with a bite taken out of it.
As it is quickly revealed, this is not historical medieval England. This is our world 800 years into the future. It is not known exactly what happened but civilisation as we know it had collapsed with devastating consequences.
In the aftermath, humanity struggled to recover. As time past, modern-day buildings crumbled, only the ancient stone churches stood strong. Thus religion once again became the governing law of the land and brought people together. Any speak of the old world is strictly forbidden and declared a heresy.
This mystery will deepen as Fairfax discovers that Father Lacy died while searching for relics of the old world and owns an extensive library of books on the subject.
Fairfax will meet up with several villagers including Lady Durston and the local mill owner, a former military man, Captain John Hancock. Together they will try to solve the mystery of Father Lacy and what really happened on top of a nearby hill known locally as the Devil’s Chair.
It was this setting of a post-apocalyptic world that drew me into the book even though little of the world as we know it remains except for huge monoliths of concrete, one of which is central to the stories plot. You won’t find the remains of a ruined Earth used in backdrops for stories such as Mad Max or The Last of Us.
Even though the story is set in a medieval period with the characters speaking in the style of the time (you becomes ye), I enjoyed the three main characters of Farifax, Durston and Hancock despite it being fairly obvious what will happen between them as the story progresses.
There’s enough world-building to make this setting and story believable. In afterthought, it makes you wonder if the collapse of civilisation would really be like hitting a huge reset button on the world.
The book is a real page-turner and as the story leads to a point which I believed was going to reveal something explosive about the disaster that ended civilisation. Failing that, a major revelation about a story character from that time.
For me, this is The Second Sleep’s biggest downfall because the ending felt very flat and disappointing. The story delivers a whimper rather than the big finale I was ready to read. It’s a real shame because I thoroughly enjoyed the book up until that point.
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