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Gutenberg's Apprentice    by Alix Christie order for
Gutenberg's Apprentice
by Alix Christie
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Here's a totally fascinating look at a pivotal point in history - the invention of the printing press in medieval Germany. But Alix Christie's young protagonist, Peter Schoeffer, in Gutenberg's Apprentice, is not all for it. At age twenty-five, he is a talented and ambitious scribe when his merchant foster father calls him home to work with Gutenberg.

In this novel, an older Schoeffer recounts his youthful experiences to young, wellborn Abbot Trithemius in 1485 Germany - the Abbot had asked him 'to recall the true beginnings of the glorious art of printing.' Peter is reluctant, still remembering Gutenberg as 'that burning, brutal genius who tore down as much as he created', but finally agrees.

Peter (a shepherd's son) was orphaned as a child, and owes everything to his mother's cousin and foster father, wealthy merchant Johann Fust, who took him in. So, despite strong misgivings, Peter answers Johann's summons back to 1450 Mainz, a city in which workingmen had 'won the city council and tried to halt the years of plunder by the ruling Elder clans', who also had the power of the Church on their side.

Johann Fust sees 'a chance to shape the future' and is about to enter into partnership with Johann Gutenberg to make it happen. He wants Peter, whom he trusts, to work under Gutenberg and keep an eye on his investment. Peter hates being back in Mainz, dislikes Gutenberg intensely and is not a believer in this new invention. He starts as both drudge and spy, but gradually that changes.

Peter's own talents become an invaluable part of the project and he is eventually promoted to foreman. Though his loyalties are often torn, he plays a key role in keeping what they are doing secret from the authorities (who would suborn it for their own purposes). He becomes passionate about what he and his fellow craftsmen are creating, believing it to be God's work. And he falls in love with young Anna Pinzler, an artist of inferior station in life.

Alix Christie portrays the slow development of the printing press and production of the first printed Bible in great detail. It's plagued by funding and staffing problems, delays, and both external and internal politics - not unlike any major product development before or since. Though the novel is quite slow paced (matching historical events) it will be of great interest to any bibliophile.

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