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Excerpt from Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Gutenberg's Apprentice

by Alix Christie

Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie X
Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 416 pages
    Sep 2015, 384 pages


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Gutenberg's Apprentice

"The feast of Saint Matthew is auspicious for all business ventures." Fust's teeth were gleaming in the torchlight. Peter waited, long legs stretched out from the willow chair. The heat of the day had left the air of the courtyard warm and scented by the rose, and from the lane beyond he smelled the tang of fruit, the thick hot earthiness of livestock. He heard the call of owls, the intermittent roar out of the gaming house—those old, familiar sounds.

"What do you mean?" he asked, when Fust did not continue.

"Just that I have a proposition." His father sat upright.

Which I may not refuse. "And this is why you called me back."

"We have a chance to shape the future." Fust leaned forward, peering at him in the dusk. "You and I together, I mean."

"I shape the future now," said Peter, straightening.

"Not quite like this."

"I haven't had a chance to write to tell you"—Peter spoke as though he hadn't heard—" that I've been asked to join the rector's office at the university."

"Ah," said Fust.

"Imagine how the trade could benefit," his son went on. "I'll see them first, whichever titles he selects. We'll know exactly what the market will demand."

The last time Fust passed through Paris, he'd asked his son to act as scout: to scour the stalls where books were sold across from Notre Dame, to keep his ears pricked and so learn the titles that the firm might sell to buyers east of the Rhine. Peter, meanwhile, toured him through the scribal workshop, one of dozens serving that great university. He showed him all the stacks of sections—written out by hand, then lent to students who would write out their own copies—hundreds of them, not only by the Greeks and Romans but the greatest scholars of the day: Duns Scotus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas. Those ink-stained scribes were like a mighty army, Fust had marveled, ranks of angels on the move.

"You said you envied me, when you last came to Paris."

"That's true." His father pulled the flesh beneath his chin. "But that was all before I met this man."

"This 'most amazing man.' "

Peter made no attempt to disguise his scorn.

"Look first." His father reached into his lap, brought out a set of folded sheets, and laid them on the table. "Just look. And then I think you'll understand."

The quire—five folded, nested sheets—was of parchment of middling quality. Part of a schoolbook, judging by its short, square shape. Peter recognized at once the Latin grammar of Donatus: he had written out those declinations a thousand times. A common, tawdry work; he looked up, horrified.

"Feel," his father said, and flipped the booklet to its last, blank page. He lifted Peter's finger, rubbed it lightly on the empty space.

He felt a stippling, a kind of roughness on the hide. As if the parchment maker had not scraped the skin entirely smooth. He rubbed two fingers, three, and all at once they sensed a strange, sharp symmetry. He flipped the page back to its written side. His blood jumped then, his palms grew damp. The textura lettering was squat and ugly, yet every string of letters was unnervingly even, all across the line. Each of those lines ended with an utter, chilling harmony, at precisely the same distance from the edge. What hand could write a line that straight, and end exactly underneath the one above? What human hand could possibly achieve a thing so strange? He felt his heart squeeze and his soul flood with an overwhelming dread.

"You see now. Why I had to call you back." Fust's voice was high.

"What work is this? What hand did this?"

"No hand." His father took his fingertip again. "Feel how it sinks? The way the ink lies not on top, but in a hollow in the skin?"

Excerpted from Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie. Copyright © 2014 by Alix Christie. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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