`Astronomer` has good concept but lacks execution

Updated: May 11, 2010, 12:50 PM IST

The secret note was just a sketch, a simple drawing. But it was damning enough to threaten the Catholic Church`s deepest beliefs.

So church officials tried to make sure the secret stayed secret, even if it meant killing the astronomer who devised the heretical diagram — Copernicus.

Lawrence Goldstone`s "The Astronomer" is a fictional tale that imagines the events surrounding the real-life rise of heliocentrism, the concept that the Earth travels around the sun, not the other way around.

The idea is interesting but the execution often falls flat. Goldstone captures the setting of 16th-century Paris in rich detail, but it seems he wasn`t as concerned with developing his main characters.

The result is a good story — but one that could have been very good if the key players were more than two-dimensional.

The protagonist is Amaury de Faverges, a man pressed to serve the Catholic Inquisition even while he indulges his dangerous appetite for science. He becomes something of a double agent, with his loyalties sometimes shifting in ways that might confuse a reader.

Church officials have heard whispers about the mysterious heretical drawing. They want it destroyed before it`s made public. And when they find out Copernicus devised it, they want the Polish astronomer dead as well.

In between these events, Goldstone shows off his knack for describing the sights and sounds of a historical scene. He does a fine job of capturing the uneasy tensions between Catholics and Lutherans, between the French elite and the lower classes, between the religious and the scientific.

His best scene is also the most disturbing: Four Lutherans are burned at the stake as a raving crowd froths with bloodlust.

Goldstone has a winning plot and strong details. But his characters don`t inspire much sympathy. Readers may find themselves unsure whom to root for, and while Amaury is a decent enough fellow, there`s not enough depth to his character to make him all that likable.

Without that emotional bond, readers might feel only superficially connected to the action.

That`s a little surprising considering how nuanced Goldstone`s characters were in his last novel, "The Anatomy of Deception." That well-crafted story, set in 19th-century Philadelphia, was creative and intriguing. The characters were compelling and three-dimensional.

"The Astronomer" has a lively pace and interesting concept. The real-life Copernicus even makes an appearance, capping a nice touch of historical intrigue.

But even his cameo isn`t enough to compensate. "The Astronomer" has the raw materials to be a good thriller but the execution falls short.

Bureau Report

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