The Sky's Dark Labyrinth by Stuart ClarkThis is the first book of fiction by Stuart Clark, a well-known UK astrology journalist and astophysicist professor. The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is the first of a trilogy of novels inspired by the history of trying to understand the Universe.

Called The Copernicum Trilogy, the first book (The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth) portrays the struggles of Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei. The second (The Sensorium of God) focuses on the story of Isaac Newton and his contemporaries such as Edmond Halley, and the third (The Day Without Yesterday) addresses Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and George Lemaitre.

At the dawn of the seventeenth century everyone believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Yet some men knew that the heavens did not move as they should, a heresy punishable by being burned alive. As Europe convulsed in conflict between Catholic and Protestant, these men prepared to die for that truth.

German Lutheran Johannes Kepler is convinced that he has been given a vision by God when he becomes the first man to distill into mathematical laws how stars and planets move through the heavens. Galileo Galilei, an Italian Catholic, will try to claim Kepler’s success for his own Church, but he finds himself enmeshed in a web of intrigue originating from within the Vatican itself. Both men struggle with themselves, with the evidence and with the forces of reaction changed not simply themselves but our world. They become trapped by human ignorance and irrational terror to the peril of their lives and those of their families in one of the darkest, yet also one of the most enlightening, periods of European history.

From the UK publisher, Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn & from Stuart Clark’s website

Despite the scientific and mathematical subject matter, the novel has accessibility and doesn’t get too technical regarding the scientific observations during that age. Unlike other historical periods, there are journals and accounts of what Kepler and Galileo observed and studied, which I think makes the story all the more interesting. Instead of relying on letters and court rumours like many of the fictional Tudor-era novels, many 16th century scientists published their thoughts and conjectures regarding the Universe.

I really enjoyed how religion, astrology and alchemy all influenced their scientific beliefs. It was interesting to see how far we’ve come in these studies and how it is still difficult for Man to explain the Universe. In their time, Galileo and his contemporaries were believed to be heretics, but they were not athiests or trying to overturn religion; they were seeking to explain God’s Universe in mathematical terms. In fact, the title of the book comes from Galileo trying to explain that to understand the universe without the language of mathematics is impossible, and to try will have you “wander[ing] about lost in the dark labyrinth of the sky.”

The story is told as a non-linear narrative, jumping months and sometimes years, from Kepler to Galileo. Some of the anecdotes and ‘trivia’ that Clark chose to include—while interesting as historical background—isn’t necessary to the narrative. Also, for the first half of the book we stay completely with Kepler, so it is a bit jarring (but refreshing) when we jump to Galileo. It took me nearly a month to read because I was reading other books (for university) and sometimes I found the narrative a bit dry.

Also, I have to admit that sometimes I really wanted to slap Kepler. As a man, I’m sure he was brilliant and you can tell through the narrative that he is misunderstood. But the chapters written from his point of view make me loathe him as a character—mostly his entitled attitude. I don’t know if he was that whiny, or if that’s just scientific/historic interpretation of his tone. Although I have to give him credit for sticking up for his beliefs, observations, and mathematical findings. Not only does he maintain his religious beliefs, but he also publicly goes against the popular notions of how the Universe operated.

Stuart Clark writes articles and news for New Scientist, The Times [London], BBC Focus and BBC Sky at Night and is a former editor of Astronomy Now magazine. Until 2001, Clark was the Director of Public Astronomy Education at the University of Hertfordshire and is still a visiting Fellow. In 2001, He decided to increase his part-time writing to a full-time occupation. Having crossed from mainstream science into science journalism, Clark now spends his working life translating astronomy, space research and physics into comprehensible language for the general public. He has written more than a dozen books, documentary scripts for television and DVD, radio scripts, podcasts and lectures extensively. [Adapted from Clarke’s website bio]

Full disclosure: I was approached by the publicist on behalf of the author and publisher and was generously provided with a review copy. This does not affect my review in any way, shape, or form. All thoughts and opinions are my own.