The Devil’s Pawn

The Devil’s Pawn by Oliver Pötzsch due to be published on out on 13 April, 2021

I did not know, until I read the afterword of this book, that Goethe had fallen victim to sequel-itus: he wrote a Faust II as a follow-on from the much more famous first part; the second was more than twice as long, and was a flop. Fortunately, The Devil’s Pawn, a sequel to The Master’s Apprentice, avoids that fate.

I have not read The Master’s Apprentice, but that was no obstacle to this volume – indeed, I didn’t realise it was a sequel until the afterword. The volume opens with the Medici pope Leo X attempting to extract a secret through torture. We are not told what the secret he’s trying to find is, and I won’t steal the book’s thunder by revealing it, but the pope comes to believe that Dr. Johann Faust knows it, and attempts to lure him to Rome.

What follows is a gripping chase across Germany, France, Breton and Rome in the early sixteenth century. Faust knows better than to be ensnared by the church but, at the same time, is increasingly troubled by a strange palsy that he attributes to his former mentor, Tonio. Accompanied by the young lady Greta and the young man, Luke, they have a long series of narrow escapes that culminate in Faust facing off against the Devil himself.

The research behind this story is revealed in the fabric of the book. That nearly all of the places, historical characters and incidents are real is inescapable – indeed, Goethe modelled Dr. Faust himself on a real historical character, an astrologer and showman of the era – and this gives the book a gritty texture. The casual cruelty of those times, the Catholic church’s corruption and Luther’s reformation, the burnings, torture and banditry, along with the superstition, fanaticism and the dawning of science all ring true.

What let the book down for me were two things. First, the writing itself was sometimes a little off-key. Take this:

They had crossed the border into France without even noticing. For a while now, people had been speaking the soft, poetic language Greta knew from a few songs, so different from the harsh-sounding German.

First, our modern borders with German speakers on one side and French speakers on the other, are exactly that: modern. Most linguistic evidence points to a continuum of dialects merging across a broad region, as it was in Val d’Aosta when I grew up, where the language was a patois mixture of Italian and French. Second, I seriously doubt that anyone thinks of their mother-tongue as “harsh-sounding.”

And, at the end of a long paragraph in a part of the book where children are being abducted supposedly for diabolic rituals, we get:

… In one of the villages, the inhabitants had thrown rocks at them and shouted angry words in Breton. The inns had been boarded up; no one wanted to accommodate strangers who might make off with the most precious thing these people had.

Their children.

The village of…

Giving “The children” in its own paragraph annoyed me. I’d just read a hundred pages of children being abducted and I knew perfectly well why the villagers were frightened. And the device of these one-sentence paragraphs was over-used. One even had exactly the opposite to its intended effect:

Johann had never before felt so alone. [A long litany of woes] and she would most likely burn at the stake soon. Even his dog was dead.

He had no one left.

The chamber…

I laughed. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but it was just funny.

There was also some dubious science: “All arrows follow the same elliptical path,” Leonardo went on. Actually, they follow the same parabolic trajectory, and although the algebra was cracked in 13th century Persia, I’m not sure it had made it to Europe by then.

These are minor quibbles and, when the writing is good – which is most of the time, it is very good:

Under a moonless night, a lonesome horseman arrived at the gates of Amboise. His horse was as pitch black as his coat, so the guards didn’t notice more than a shadow. He was riding along the wall through the watery meadows by the river where the fireflies glowed like will-o’-the-wisps. The smell of rot and sulphur wafted over the muddy banks. Above the river burned the watch files of Amboise castle, rising above the edge of town like a giantess made of stone.

But my major quibble is the ending, which was just far too Hollywood-CGI for my taste. Where it could have been understated and threatening, the moral sacrifice the story deserved was overwhelmed by the special effects department being given free reign. And so, what could have been a four-star result is, with much sadness, a three-star. But what brings it back to four stars is the erudition and the rather nice sprinkling of actual Goethe quotes in the text.

This is an ambitious and, although flawed, a very good book. Worth a read.