Review of “City of Wisdom and Blood” by Robert Merle

Amanda Marshall


City of Wisdom and Blood, the second installment in the Fortunes of France series, is a fast paced historical fiction novel, taking place in 1566 France. Told through the eyes of a fifteen year old nobleman Pierre de Siorac, the reader follows his journey away from home to study medicine in the famed city Montepellier. Traveling alongside his brother and valet, Siorac encounters bandits, unfriendly travelers, deadly religious conflicts and many, many women. His escapades only begin upon reaching Montpellier, making a suspenseful novel full of sword fights, duels, and moral dilemmas.

At its most basic form City of Wisdom and Blood is the story of how a boy becomes a man. The 1566 French setting gives this classic tale more flavor and interest. The reader gets an insight into historical France through the eyes of a sympathetic nobleman. Robert Merle coated the novel with religious conflict that at the time dominated the nation. Siorac is a Huguenot of the reformed religion, in a country dominated by Catholicism. The royals are Catholic and throughout the novel Siorac treads carefully when it comes to divulging his beliefs. The situation is even worse for Jews, and Atheists, who tended to meet with death. Siorac’s benefactor takes great pains to hide his Jewish beliefs, lighting fires in different rooms and buying pork only to give to his dogs. Toward the end of the novel Siorac and his two travel mates become entangled in a city taken over by Huguenots who slaughter every Catholic they can find. Siorac however does not approve and fights to save Catholic lives. The religious conflict and Siorac’s sympathy for the enemy Catholic gives the novel contemporary heroic realism.

While the reader identifies with Siorac’s empathy, it is more difficult to agree with most of his decisions. As a main character, Siorac is very brash, and his actions often put him and his friends in danger. He acts without thinking about the consequences, especially for others. His actions almost cause his schoolmates’ and his brother’s death, and indirectly causes a girl to be hanged. It’s hard to be on board with a character when you want to throw down the book to scold him like a child.

In contrast, Siorac’s brother Sampson is portrayed as an angel. He has incredibly high virtues and seems very innocent. All who meet him can’t help but love him and his beauty. Despite Siorac’s love for his brother, he does not consult him or take his safety into account. Sampson is loved, but not viewed as clever. He is to be led, not to lead.

Despite Siorac’s faults, people forgive and love him as well. His hazardous actions set him teetering on a pin between public acceptance and hate that even affects this reader. This reader loves him when he puts the atheist priest out of his misery, and can’t stand him when he digs up graves. At the end of the novel, you are unsure whether Siorac learned his lesson. It is his risky personality that grants him public approval once more.

It needs to be said that Merle’s depiction of women in this novel is upsetting. The only purpose they serve is to have sex with Siorac. This may be because it is told from the first person of a fifteen-year-old boy.  Siorac seems to sleep or want to sleep with every woman in this novel and whether innkeepers or noblewoman, they fall under his charms sooner or later. The most dramatic woman in the novel is Madame de Joyeuse, a noblewoman just starting her descent from the peak of her beauty. She is so insecure she asks Siorac to shower her with compliments on every appendage of her body, from her feet to her lips.  The necessary independent woman in this novel is Thomasine, and the only reason she is able to be independent is because she is a part time prostitute. You get the picture.

Merle also gives a powerful impression on the importance of virginity. Fontanette, a housemaid, loses her virginity to Siorac. Her mistress casts her out of the house when she finds out. Later Fontanette is hanged after being forced to kill her illegitimate child. In contrast there is Angelina, a character whose virginity stays in tact. Siorac saves Angelina from bandits and falls in love with her. At the end of the novel she stays pure and has a perceived happy ending.

But, overall, City of Wisdom and Blood is a fun read, as long as one doesn’t read between the lines on the portrayal of women and class. There are lots of different conflicts and obstacles that the main character must overcome. Once one issue is resolved another arises, making this one a page-turner. There are inquests of honor, sword fights, rituals and customs lost. The bravado and daring of the main character gives the novel a Three Musketeers feel, and is definitely worth the time.


City of Wisdom and Blood

Robert Merle

Pushkin Press