The Day of Atonement by David Liss (Random House, Sept. 23,2014)-Sebastião Raposa was only a boy when he was forced to flee Lisbon after his family was taken away by the Inquisition. It’s now 10 years later, and he’s returned to Portugal under the name of Sebastian Foxx, and in the guise of an English businessman. Business isn’t his real priority in Portugal, however. In fact, all these years he’s harbored a simmering hate for the man that took his family and changed his life forever: a priest named Pedro Azinheiro. His one goal is to kill Azinheiro and avenge his family, but he soon realizes that it won’t be as simple a task as he first thought.
A little about Sebastian Foxx: as a child he was a Jew that had converted to Christianity, or, a New Christian, and they were particular targets of the Inquisition, who suspected them of secretly practicing Judaism. No one was safe, and just about no one could be trusted, since agents of the Inquisition frequently used family members and friends against each other under threat. After all, there’s not much you won’t do when your children are threatened with torture and death. While in England, he was mentored by Benjamin Weaver, a prominent character in a few of Liss’s previous works (and one of my favorite characters, period.) Foxx knows how to protect himself, and he knows how to fight, but it’s going to take those skills, and quick thinking to navigate the treacherous Lisbon that he now finds himself in.
As I said, he arrives in Lisbon with one goal: to kill the Inquisition priest Azinheiro, but things become quite a bit more complicated when he finds out that Charles Setwell, the man that assured his safety ten years ago now has a young daughter that the Inquisition seems to have taken an interest in. Foxx feels indebted to him, and after he finds out that he was robbed by a prominent couple, the Carvers, during a business transaction, he vows to get his money back as well as make sure his daughter is safe.
If you’re familiar with Liss’s work, you already know how good he is in immersing you in another place and time, and indeed, the rough streets of 1750s Lisbon come to life in this book, but this is Sebastian’s journey, and while he starts off as a man singularly bent on revenge, things change pretty drastically as he discovers the schemes within schemes that are at work. Nothing is what it seems and he pretty quickly realizes that he may not have the whole story of how his family ended up in the hands of the Inquisition. There were a few revelations that I didn’t see coming, and I love it when a book can surprise me like that. Liss tops the story off with a pretty prominent, and horrific, historical event, and it serves as a striking backdrop to the climax of Sebastian’s journey. Liss is at the top of his game, and historical fiction doesn’t get much better than this.