Book Review: The Secret of Vesalius by Jordi Llobregat

TheSecretofVesaliusAbout the Book

Daniel Amat has left Spain and all that happened there behind him. Having just achieved a brilliant role in Ancient Languages at Oxford University and an even more advantageous engagement, the arrival of a letter – a demand – stamped Barcelona comes like a cold hand from behind.

He arrives back in that old, labyrinthine and near-mythic city a few days before the great 1888 World Fair, amid dread whispers of murders – the injuries reminiscent of an ancient curse, and bearing signs of the genius 16th century anatomist, Vesalius. Daniel is soon pulled into the depths of the crime, and eventually into the tunnels below Barcelona, where his own dark past and the future of science are joined in a terrible venture – to bring the secret of Vesalius to life.

Format: eBook, Hardcover (582pp.)         Publisher: riverrun
Published: 16th November 2017                Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

I can see why this thrilling historical and accomplished historical fiction has been compared to The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (they’re both set in Barcelona) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (they share the Gothic horror atmosphere). In fact, for me it had distinct touches of Edgar Allen Poe with a bit of Jack the Ripper and The Hound of the Baskervilles for good measure. In other words, it’s got just about everything you want (well, at least, what this reader wants) from a compelling historical mystery.

I adored the atmospheric period setting and the author’s descriptions that really made turn-of-of-the century Barcelona come alive.

Exiting the alleyway, Fleixa came out onto Las Ramblas, which teemed with people. Fruit and vegetable carts, headed for La Boqueria market, vied with horses and traps. Along came the Catalonia Line tram, handbell ringing out. Match sellers, newspaper vendors and florists cried their wares as the housekeepers hurried past, and well-to-do ladies and gentlemen strolled by. Fleixa dived through the mass of people, crossed to Calle del Pi and, after a few minutes’ walk, arrived at the newpaper offices.’

If you’re familiar with Barcelona, you’ll enjoy spotting the different places mentioned and if you’re not, then The Secret of Vesalius would be the perfect appetiser for a visit to that city.

I also loved the intriguing cast of characters, such as Bernat Fleixa, the rather down-at-heel journalist whose scruffy exterior hides an unrelenting passion for the truth and a unexpectedly soft heart.  It has to be said, though, that the author does rather put his main characters through the mill!

The plot is as labyrinthine as the tunnels beneath Barcelona and the author kept me guessing about the solution to the mystery all the way through the book. And I’ll admit to having a ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that moment’ towards the end.   Along the way, the action is dark, violent and, at times, a little gruesome (but then I’m squeamish) and this is a Gothic thriller after all. There’s one bit that made me shudder…well, I’ll leave you to read the book and guess the bit I’m referring to!

As well as being utterly entertaining, I found the oppositions explored in the book really interesting:

  • Ancient versus modern: the works of a 16th century anatomist and the historic catacombs beneath the city juxtaposed with new technology being displayed at the World Fair.
  • Darkness versus light: the pitch black, rat-infested of the tunnels beneath Barcelona contrasted with the brightness of the streetlights powered by the newly-constructed electricity power station.
  • Rich versus poor: the nobility and power brokers of the city sipping fine wines at the theatre or in their lavish mansions at the same time as the poor of Barcelona inhabit rundown hovels in dark, rubbish strewn streets.
  • Truth versus lies: the determination of Daniel and his companions to reveal the truth behind the dreadful murders taking place in the city, whilst others try their best to protect their own positions by suppressing information and spreading false rumours.
  • Science versus superstition: the latest surgical advances being studied whilst, elsewhere in the city, people believe there is a Black Hound from Hell stalking the dark streets, inflicting terrible wounds on its victims.

If you like your historical mysteries to have an atmospheric period setting, a cast of colourful characters and be replete with murder, passion and intrigue, then The Secret of Vesalius will thrill you as much as it did me. An impressive debut.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers riverrun in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Atmospheric, suspenseful, mystery

Try something similar…The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Jordi LlobregatAbout the Author

Jordi Llobregat began writing at the age of twelve after watching the film The Man from Acapulco with Jean Paul Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset. He currently combines writing with his work as head of a company that works on community development in cities. His work has been included in several short story anthologies and he is a member of the writing group, El Cuaderno Rojo. He is director of the noir fiction festival, Valencia Negra. The Secret of Vesalius is his first novel and has been published in eighteen countries worldwide. He lives in Valencia, Spain.

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