The School of Night - Louis Bayard
In 16th century England, a group of noted Elizabethan scholars gathered in secret to discuss potentially heretical ideas; this group is known to modern historians as the “School of Night.” 400 years later, Henry Cavendish and his friend Alonzo Wax sought to create such a philosophical school of their own. Years later, Alonzo is dead and has named disgraced academic Henry the executor of his affairs. On the day of Alonzo’s funeral, Henry is approached by noted book collector Bernard Styles regarding an old letter that had been “borrowed” by Alonzo. This letter is purportedly written to Thomas Harriot, a lesser known member of the School of Night, and may just contain the location of a valuable treasure…

The School of Night contains all the elements of the modern historical thriller. There’s a lost treasure, secret codes, murders, and prominent historical figures. What sets Bayard’s novel apart, however, is the story of Thomas Harriot that is told throughout the novel.

Less is known about Harriot as compared to his colleagues Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe, but his numerous achievements are revealed both in the present story and in sections set in early 1600s England. These past chapters are largely a love story, in which Harriot shares his knowledge of optics with learned servant girl Margaret Crookenshanks. As Harriot and Margaret’s love story unfolds, it also brings to light Harriot’s scientific achievements. The historical sections are very well done, and are some of the most interesting parts of the novel.

The present-day characters are admittedly less intriguing than some of the past character, although they are well developed. The romance between Henry and femme fatale Clarissa Dale simply pales to Thomas and Margaret’s. The “thriller” sections also move a bit slow in parts, and much of the search for clues is a bit dull due to the characters having ready access to the internet and Google. Finally, there’s also the strange addition of Clarissa’s purported visions, which don’t really fit with the rest of the novel and are never really explained.

Although it does have flaws, The School of Night is an interesting read about an interesting historical figure.

A review copy was provided through the Librarything Early Reviewers program.