Book Review: Act of Faith by Kelly Gardiner

We’re getting close to the announcement of our Inky winners, but before that happens we’re taking a close look at another of our Inky Shortlisted titles.

Next up on the chopping block – hehe – is Kelly Gardiner’s Act of Faith.

When ideas were dangerous, one girl found the courage to act

England, 1640. Sixteen-year-old Isabella is forced to flee her home when her father′s radical ideas lead him into a suicidal stand against Oliver Cromwell′s army. Taking refuge in Amsterdam and desperate to find a means to survive, Isabella finds work with an elderly printer, Master de Aquila, and his enigmatic young assistant, Willem.

When Master de Aquila travels to Venice to find a publisher brave enough to print his daring new book, Isabella accompanies him and discovers a world of possibility – where women work alongside men as equal partners, and where books and beliefs are treasured.

But in a continent torn apart by religious intolerance, constant danger lurks for those who don′t watch their words. And when the agents of the Spanish Inquisition kidnap de Aquila to stop him printing his book, Isabella and Willem become reluctant allies in a daring chase across Europe to rescue him from certain death.

I know, terrible pun, but I couldn’t help myself.

Historical fiction scares me. Weird, to be so scared of one teeny tiny genre but there it is. I guess first thing off the bat you should know is that I’m a history major. I spent years happily learning about wars, revolution, bread and freedom; about big ideas that took years of fighting and death to explain; about beliefs so strong they ripped apart nations, neighbours and families. I find I just don’t like reading it as fiction. There’s no real rational reason why, I just prefer history as truth not a hybrid of the two. So I usually stand well away and leave historical fiction to those more adapt at being reasonable about it.

But when you have a book given a ‘notable book’ award by the CBCA, and a friend (or a hundred) giving it enthusiastic reviews, you must go where the book gods lead (even if that is into the scary realms of historical fiction).

Act of Faith is quite simply brilliant. The setting, plot and characters, while fantastic and enjoyable, come a distant second in comparison to the the theological debates that rage through this novel. Long sections of witty banter that hit on the most complex of issues in the simplest of ways. It is a book that invites you to be better, smarter, kinder. It is a book about tolerance and knowledge.

‘I have distilled all the great philosophers and theologians, all the great ideas of my faith, your faith; the three faiths of the Holy Land.’
‘But how can the religions live together in one book?’
‘Why shouldn’t they?’ he asked. ‘We live together in one world.’

Such a large complex idea, this. A book of all the religions living side by side. How? And yet the answer is so simple: we live together in one world. If in life, then why not in book? This week marks America’s 30th annual Banned Book Week. Almost four centuries from the setting of Act of Faith and we are still censoring the written word; still fighting for the right to access knowledge freely and equally. Gardiner spends her time exploring this. Just how much have we changed? Are women equal? religions tolerated? Ideas free to be expressed?

If you fear that such a seemingly grandiose tale about the state of the world, religion, politics and alike, will have your teens running for the hills, fear not. Because Gardiner’s writing is accessible. It doesn’t talk down to the reader, doesn’t tell the reader that believing X makes you stupid, Y makes you wrong and Z is the only answer. Instead, it asks questions and leaves you to fill in your answers. They aren’t labelled right or wrong. They’re just one possible answer amongst many.

Act of Faith would be a brilliant reading choice for your book clubs and reading circles. It will incite debate and challenge your students to query themselves, and the world they live in.


For previous reviews in the Inky Shortlisted series: The Fault in our Stars, The Reluctant Hallelujah, BZRK, A Monster Calls and Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

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