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The Rising Tide by Mark Frutkin

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

In September 1769, a man is seen on the Italian island of Torcello, close to Venice. He is carrying a skeleton on his back. A wolf runs by, wearing the robes of a priest. The news of these sightings arrives in Venice and all of a sudden people are talking about the Second Coming of Christ in the form of this hermit. Right near Venice! The population of Venice is seized with the possibility of this great miracle happening in their midst. In Rome, the Pope is not happy. Heresy is still a matter of high concern. Moreover Venice has always had an independent streak, often rebuffing the Vatican’s authority.

The Pope sends an Inquisitor to deal with the heresy. Bruno Pissani is an ambitious man who intends to become pope himself one day. This will be his first step: his first Inquisition trial. Determined to succeed, he comes armed with all of the doctrinal tools the faithful use for dealing with heretics, including a retainer who is an expert at torture.

Michele Archenti is a former priest who has doffed his robes (perhaps the same ones the wolf is wearing) and become a printer of as yet unprofitable books. His latest production is a volume of erotic poetry written by a friend, the wine merchant Arcangelo, under a pseudonym. Hopes are that it will be the windfall he needs.

Hearing the rumours of a hermit carrying a skeleton on his back, Michele realizes that it must be his old friend, Rodolfo, and guesses why he might be carrying a skeleton on this back. He goes to the island to tell him to flee, but Rodolfo refuses. The inevitable occurs: Rodolfo is soon arrested by the Inquisition and put on trial. Michele is appointed to defend him, except that a trial by the Inquisition does not determine guilt or innocence. Guilt is assumed. The only issue is whether the defendant will confess to save his soul. And Rodolfo is in no mood to confess.

The trial proceeds, closely watched by the whole city, including two spies sent by the Pope to monitor Pissani. As Michele strives to stymie Pissani’s case, other characters get pulled in as defendants, witnesses, or spies. Little by little we get to know Michele, Arcangelo, Rodolfo, and Pissani, as well as the courtesan Francesca, possessed of an ethereal air and an uncanny, almost supernatural ability to untie knots, and her down-to-earth employer, Bianca.

Venice itself is also a character. It is a distinctive place. There are no streets filled with wagons and horses. Instead there are alleyways, promenades, and canals. The soft lap of water replaces the rolling of wheels and the lip-clop of hooves. The denizens are proud of the singularity of their city. Yet it is also a place of sharp contrast. It is a town of sophistication and superstition both. Piety and depravity exist side by side. Modernity and antiquity clash in odd ways as Enlightenment thinking struggles to puncture the superstitions of the past and the once formidable city-state tries to preserve the power and independence of its mercantile heritage, but that, too, may be a relic of the past.

Instead of having chapters, The Rising Tide is laid out in scenes, each with its own title. This seems to be a nod, perhaps, to the way such a book would have been organised by a printer such as Michele in 1769. But then the narration, at first normally distanced, and thus apparently objective, begins to include commentary using earthy language and ironic humour, and it slowly becomes clear that the voice narrating the story is meant to be a Venetian, perhaps a contemporary of the characters. This breaks the barrier between reader and story a little, drawing one in to the subjective observations of the narrator. And the question arises: How are we to believe what we are told? Can a narrator from the 18th century be trusted to be objective, or is he (and judging by some of the language, one assumes it is a he) susceptible to the same conflict of superstition and sobriety he describes in others? And there are hints of things that aren’t quite of this earth, or at least hard to explain, which are accepted as fact by the narrator. Francesca’s uncanny ability to untie knots, for example.

Author Mark Frutkin keeps the reader rapt with twists and turns right up to the end, and his command of detail is impressive. All this creates an engrossing and very satisfying story for the most part. There are a couple of stumbles, however. First, the “flavour” of the narrator could be stronger, just to make his presence clearer and bolster the gradually increasing sense of otherworldliness. Second, while the main characters have depth and well crafted personalities, the Pope’s pair of spies come across as rather cartoonish and barely even two-dimensional. Lastly there is the ending. After so much build-up, detail, and nuance, the last scene wraps up everything very suddenly, in over just four pages. The result seems not just rushed but in places more than a bit too pat, leaving the reader wondering just what has happened. A more drawn-out, deliberate telling might have at least left the reader with a firmer grasp of the author’s intentions.

Rodolfo and Michele have met before. Both appear in Frutkin’s 2006 Trillium Award winner, Fabrizio’s Return. They parted ways, each on his own path—Rodolfo to life as a hermit on the island of Torcello; Michele to Venice itself. This second volume brings them together again, but the ending leaves one wondering: Is the Second Coming still a possibility? If so, is there yet another volume of this story to come? One hopes so.

The Rising Tide is published by The Porcupine's Quill.

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