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Book review: “The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth” by Stuart Clark

If there’s any justice in the world, right now, as you read this, there’s a meeting being held, somewhere in the bowels of the BBC, at which a panel of dark-suited, bespectacled execs are discussing the casting of the next big budget BBC historical drama…

“So, we’re here to discuss the casting for ‘The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth’…” begins the Top Man. “Any opening thoughts?”

“I think we absolutely have to get Gary Oldman for Kepler”, suggests a smooth voice from his right. “He’d be perfect… he does skeletal and dour so well…”

“Ok… Kepler… Oldman…” the Top Man repeats, nodding in approval, “yes, I like that…” He taps away on his iPad, scrolling down a list. “Next… Tycho..?”

“Brian Blessed!” shout three people simultaneously. The Top Man nods again. That’s the name he’d come up with, too. Loud, brash, completely over the top, and wouldn’t need much padding. Perfect. So far so good.

“Grienberger?” he asks next. There’s a pause. This one is more difficult.

“I thought maybe Alan Rickman,” someone eventually offers, hesitantly. “He was great in the Potter films – ”

“Oh yes, yes, I can see that,” the Top Man agrees, “very menacing, very dark…ok, yes, that would work…” He taps away again. “Jeppo?” he asks, with a sigh. This one has been worrying him. Who could they cast as a lunatic dwarf?

“Um… I had a thought… bit outside the box, though…” someone suggests nervously.

“Go on, we’re all friends here,” Top Man says, ignoring the sarcastic coughs and rolling of eyes prompted by his comment.

“Well… I was thinking… Andy Serkis – ”

“Too tall!” laughs someone on the other side of the room. “You want him shuffling about on his knees?”

“We could do it with the motion capture thing,” continues the blue spectacled youngster, ignoring the snide comment. “Worked great in the Tolein films, and the Apes movie…” 

“Hmmm…” the Top Man replies, cogs clearly turning. “Ok… worth a try… let’s contact Serkis’ agent. If it doesn’t pan out there’s always Graham Norton, I suppose…” He looks at his list. “Just one major character left then… Galileo – ”

“Stephen Fry has already asked if he can be considered,” someone reports. The Top Man nods in satisfaction. Perfect.

“Right, that’s casting sorted then,” he smiles. Now, locations…”


Ok. Let’s be honest. The first word that comes to mind when many people think of a historical novel is “dull”, particularly if it’s a scientific historical novel, right? But with “The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth” Stuart Clark – popular writer, broadcaster and prolific Twitterer – has swept that cliche away and given us a book that is both scientifically educational and a pretty good,  gripping adventure, too.

The story is a pretty familiar one, if you’ve a basic knowledge of the history of astronomy: how science and the Church (many different Churches, actually) clashed over the way the solar system was arranged and worked. You know, the whole Tycho vs Copernicus thing, crystal spheres, harmonies, epicycles and all that. What Stuart Clark has done so cleverly is bring the players in that story – Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo and various Church goodies and baddies – gloriously to life, and made it a very human story in the process. In TSDL (come on, I’m not typing out the whole title every time!)  Clark doesn’t ram the science down your throat; there’s a LOT of science in the book, no mistake about that, but because the main characters are such passionate scientists, their science is their life, you learn the science, and the history, as their characters and stories develop. So, astronomy types reading this book will love the insights into the scientific debates and battles, while non-astronomers will get caught up in the human stories, I’m sure, and subconsciously absorb some science along the way.

One of the things I loved most about the book was the way the battles between science and church, with their behind the scenes plotting and scheming, are so deliciously dark and mysterious. Clark is such a visual writer that during these chapters you can almost hear the huge wooden Vatican doors creaking like the doors of haunted houses in Scooby Doo, and feel the chill air inside the churches and cathedrals. The characters involved in these chapters are the most intriguing, too, with the character of Grienberger portrayed with lip-smacking malevolence and disdain, but coming through at the end as a man who – well, no, I won’t spoil it, you’ll want to read it for yourself.

Obviously TSDL isn’t a reference book, it’s a novel, so there’s quite a bit of artistic licence in many of the chapters I’m sure – bloody battles in tiny streets fight for attention with long hours spent hunched over dusty parchments in candlelit studies – but that’s ok; if I want to read an astronomy reference book I’ve got shelves over there groaning under the weight of them, thank you.  The book had me by the throat from the very beginning, from as soon as it started describing the final hours of Giordano Bruno. That was written so visually I could honestly see the events unfolding in my mind as I read it. The stinking cell… Bruno curled up…the rich colours of the Cardinal’s cloth… loved it, really.

So, you want romance? It’s there. History? Check. Intrigue and mystery? Check. Science? Check.

But the heart of this book is the struggle of one man, Kepler, to stand up for what he believes in, for what he knows, and to stay true to himself, and to science, in the face of personal and professional attacks by an unbelievably powerful enemy. Personally, I’ve no idea how accurate Clark’s portrayal of Kepler is, I don’t know much about his personal life, but I’m confident he did his research and portrayed Kepler as accurately and faithfully as he could. But in the book Kepler comes across as a brave, sincere man, devoted to his family, faith and science (though maybe not in that order…), and I really liked him, even if I did want to give him a slap a few times and tell him not to be so naive and open his eyes..!

So, should you hand over some of your hard-earned cash for a copy of “The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth”? I don’t know, that depends. Do you want to see historical figures like Kepler, Tycho and Galileo in a new light? Do you want to learn about the historic clash of Church and Science that led to modern science’s understanding of our place in the universe? Do you want one of the most fascinating periods in the history of astronomy brought vividly to life, giving you a whole new respect for the scientists who steered us to where we are now? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions then yep, go get yourself a copy, you won’t regret it.

But I warn you, it’s a real “Can’t Put Down” book, so set aside time to read it. I read it in one morning, sat in this tent, in this muddy field by Ullswater…

…and although I was desperate to cook our breakfast, and get out of my soggy clothes, and basically rejoin the human race, all I wanted to do was keep reading. So that has to be a good sign.

TSDL is the first in Clark’s trilogy of astronomy novels. The next will feature Isaac Newton (hmmm… how will Clark make Newton as exciting a figure as Kepler? That’ll be interesting…), and the final one will feature Einstein and Hubble (and, hopefully, Eddington..?). I’m already looking forward to reading those.

But not, if I have anything to do with it, in a tent.

More about “The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth” (link to Amazon page)