Young priest confronts mysteries of past in Harris’ thriller

“The Second Sleep,” Alfred A. Knopf, by Robert Harris

Christopher Fairfax is a newly ordained priest assigned by his bishop in 1468 to ride out to the isolated English village of Addicott St. George to handle the funeral of its longtime vicar, Thomas Lacy, who died suddenly in an accident. Well-meaning but inexperienced, Fairfax becomes ensnared in a situation where he must deal with inscrutable locals, hidden forces and strange artifacts dug up from the earth.

Fairfax quickly finds out things are different than they seem at first blush. The reader does, too, when Harris introduces a significant twist early in the story. If you want to avoid that spoiler, stop reading this review now.

Harris has built a steady career writing historical novels based on the rise and fall of Cicero, Neville Chamberlain’s notorious “peace in our time” deal with Adolf Hitler and France’s infamous Dreyfus affair. He has strayed into alternative histories, too, with “Fatherland: a Novel,” set in 1964 where the Nazis won World War II.

This book is also set in an imagined reality, one that is hundreds of years in the future after a global cataclysm in our current time. The artifacts being collected in this post-technological time include plastic straws and an iPhone. What did 21st-century beings use these artifacts for? People in the book aren’t quite sure. And the authorities — Fairfax’s church foremost among them — absolutely do not want people digging up and studying the distant past.

Lacy had ignored that injunction. Inevitably, Fairfax gets drawn in, too.

Harris is a fluid writer who expertly sets the scene and then turns the screw bit by bit to build tension. The book subtly explores themes of faith, the risks of technology and the power of the state to control knowledge.

There are engaging characters like Nicholas Shadwell, the heretical, wheezy researcher of the forbidden past. Local mill owner Capt. John Hancock is an overbearing capitalist always in overdrive and always interesting. But as the main character, Fairfax can come off as too much of a milquetoast.

And the end of the book seems kind of abrupt after some 300 pages of patient, methodical buildup. The villain gives a monologue that ties up some loose ends and then the book seems to just stop suddenly.

It feels like a roller coaster ride that ends before that last big plunge.

Michael Hill, The Associated Press