Review: Voltaire's Calligrapher by Pablo de Santis

193. Voltaire’s Calligrapher by Pablo de Santis
Publication: Harper Perennial (October 5, 2010) originally published 2001, Paperback ARC
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Dark Fantasy (according to Kirkus)
Rating: Bin it
Read: September 26-28, 2010
Source: Publisher
Summary from Amazon:

Dalessius is twenty when he comes to work for one of the Enlightenment’s most famous minds, the author and philosopher Voltaire. As the great man’s calligrapher, Dalessius becomes witness to many wonders—and finds himself in the middle of a secret battle between the malevolent remnants of the all-but-dead Dark Ages and the progressive elements of the modern age. The calligrapher’s role in this shadowy conflict will carry him to many perilous places— through the gates of sinister castles and to the doors of a bizarre bordello; toward life-and death confrontations with inventive henchmen, ingenious mechanical execution devices, poisonous fish, and murderous automatons. As the conspiracy to halt the Enlightenment’s astonishing progress intensifies, young Dalessius’s courage—as well as Voltaire’s unique cunning and wit—are put to the ultimate test as they strive to ensure the survival of the future.


You know how sometimes a book just doesn’t work for you, but you don’t know why and everyone else seems to like it and so you try to make excuses explaining why you didn’t like it? That’s what I’ve been doing every since I finished reading Voltaire’s Calligrapher, because I don’t know why I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as everyone else the world seemed to be.

Here’s the thing. This book’s narrative depends heavily on telling, not showing, and that drives me up the WALL. It just made the book drag on and on, when it’s really only a novella-sized book and not the 300-page clunker it seemed to be when I was reading it!

There were other things I didn’t like. Characters info dump on each other nearly every chapter. There’s a lackluster “romance” between Dalessius and Clarissa, a shut-in who likes pretending she’s an automaton. I’m not even sure you could CALL it a romance between it seemed entirely one-sided to me, almost to a farcical degree. What dialogue there was was boring as hell. I don’t get the point of having Voltaire in there except to attach the book to a specific time period because he doesn’t seem to do anything except give Dalessius a reason to stick his nose into the mystery.

The author
For all that I had problems with the book, I did like parts of it. I liked the calligraphy aspect, especially when Dalessius explained how calligraphers worked and why it was a dying art (because of the printing press, of course) but still an important one. I like how Dalessius’ philosophy about calligraphy changed as he grew older and learned more about himself. I liked how he experimented with different inks, including invisible ones. And I liked the bookish aspect about it!

I also liked the mystery…sort of. I suppose I’m not as up on my history as I should be, because I honestly didn’t know what was going on most of the time. I knew who Voltaire was, I knew about the French Revolution (something that was hinted at in the book), and I knew a bit about the Jesuits and the Catholics and whatnot. But the bishop that was so central to the mystery? Who was that? Was he ever named? No idea.

The sci-fi aspects– the automatons, basically– were fun but I didn’t see how they fit in with the rest of the world. It seemed like a world that was remarkably like ours, and yet I don’t think we ever had automatons that could be mistaken for alive human beings. I think this is something that I didn’t get; I was expecting a straight up historical mystery, and the inclusion of robots threw me off a little. So…maybe it threw off my enjoyment of the book, as well? Possible.

I REALLY wanted to like Voltaire’s Calligrapher. It seemed like it had everything I enjoy in a book: mystery, romance, historical thingies, a bit of science fiction, conspiracies and evil priests and theaters and mad Frenchmen. But the way it was written was so…boring. Would it really have been so terrible to stick a few interesting conversations in there, a few more details about the world Dalessius was living in?

Maybe I just wanted it to be another A Conspiracy of Paper, but set in France. Oh well.

Have you ever disliked a book that everyone else seemed to love? I’m talking ones that are universally liked, like The Hunger Games maybe. Twilight and Dan Brown don’t count!


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Other reviews: The Complete Review (who liked it more than I did) | Kirkus Reviews (who gave it a STAR wth is wrong with me?)

0 thoughts on “Review: Voltaire's Calligrapher by Pablo de Santis”

  1. The Hunger Games was alright for me, but the romance was so contrived I didn’t want to continue with the series. Also, The Paladin, but everyone I tell about the horrific gendered power imbalance there agrees with me, so I dunno.

    What a lovely cover for a bad book.

  2. Too bad you didn’t like it more. This happens to me with a lot of books. Most recently, The Dark Divine. I don’t get the hype?! Anyway, yeah, happens way too often 🙂

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