In The Second Sleep by Robert Harris (Fatherland), a startling spoiler occurs not two dozen pages in, completely upending the expected historical fiction. In 1468, London priest Christopher Fairfax arrives in rural Axford, where the parish priest, Thomas Lacey, died accidentally. Fairfax plans to deliver the eulogy and leave, but soon realizes that Lacey may have been murdered. The priest knows England's history: in the distant past an apocalypse occurred, and the Church now holds complete authority over the country. Lacey, in a shockingly heretical act, owned books published before the apocalypse, and he may have been murdered because of it. Aghast, Fairfax opens one of the books. "He felt as if a hand had reached out of the distant past and brushed its fingers across his face. He wished he could unsee what he had read, but knowledge alters everything, and he knew that was impossible."
Fairfax stays in Axford, both because he's obsessed with the forbidden information he's uncovering and also because, to his shame, he's attracted to a young widow, Lady Durston, whose husband also collected forbidden relics. Her fiancé, John Hancock, is a headstrong "force of nature" whose brawn, initially scorned by the more cerebral Fairfax, becomes an indispensible factor in uncovering the unimaginable past. Hancock doesn't understand how a priest can take part in an investigation expressly forbidden by the Church, but Fairfax says, "Faith that cannot withstand the truth is not a faith holding." In The Second Sleep, Harris has crafted an audacious, genre-bending novel. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.