Gutenberg’s Apprentice: Book Review

Title: Gutenberg’s Apprentice
Author: Alix Christie
Rating: 2/5

I received a free copy of this from the publisher (via in return for an honest review.

The subject matter of Alix Christie’s debut novel is any book lover’s dream: the pioneering of the printing press in Mainz, Germany. The novel follows professional scribe Peter Schoeffer for several years as he is recalled from his position in Paris and more-or-less forcibly apprenticed, by his foster father, to the master printer Gutenberg. Since I am clearly interested in books, love historical fiction, and have had something of a preoccupation with Germany since my mid-teens, I was very excited when this book arrived.

Honestly, I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag. The scene setting and level of historical detail provided was fascinating. Christie’s strength very much lies in depicting that world, which is so different to our own. One scene sticks in my mind in particular: Peter is returning to Mainz by boat from a brief detour elsewhere, and he muses on how it has become home again. Christie provides a vivid description of the town as it greeted him, and it is at these short, detailed scenes that the novel really excels—individual historical tableaux. Very interesting, very enjoyable.

However, I felt that the characters and pacing of the book both left something to be desired. I found that I often didn’t understand what was going on—if I left the book for a day after reading 60 pages, I would have to go back and skim them again the next time I picked it up. Much of the plot development is demonstrated through extremely subtle dialogue, and I think that, because the author was trying so hard to show (rather than tell) what is going on, I failed to pick up on quite a lot of exposition. Something or other would happen, and the characters would all react to it as if it were a triumph or a tragedy, but I couldn’t quite understand why because everything was being hinted at, rather than spoken outright. (In fairness to the author, I also find it almost impossible to read between the lines of social situations in real life, so it might just be me—although I do normally find it easier in books).

The relationships between the characters seemed a little flat. Peter’s two loyalties are to Gutenberg, his master, and Fust, his foster father. These two commitments increasingly conflict with one another, which could have given the book a very interesting climax—but I didn’t feel that this was ever capitalised on. There was a “final conflict”-type scene between the three characters set up, but again, it just fizzled out; even though I read the scene several times, I couldn’t really understand how it ended. The same with Anna, Peter’s love interest—I was never shown why he loved her, apart from the fact that she was young and hot. Which, granted, probably important—but given that her approval or disapproval, her presence or absence, is used as a catalyst for quite a lot of Peter’s character development, the reader really needs more. Although a great many of the relationships in had the potential to be fascinating, they were just left hanging, not explained or explored or joined-up throughout the book.

I’m disappointed to be giving this only a two-star review, because there were definitely moments of brilliance throughout the book. Had it been perhaps a hundred pages shorter, with clearer exposition or better character development, I think this could have been an excellent book. As it is, I only finished the book because I kept hoping it would get better. By the time I realised it wouldn’t, I was only 60 pages from the end and it felt like it was too late to quit.