Skip to main content

The Second Sleep


The Second Sleep

Robert Harris has spent the better part of his career producing stellar historical fiction. He also has shown that he can write suspense with the best of them, as THE GHOST WRITER proved. However, his latest is unlike anything he has ever penned before. Actually, it is unlike anything I have read this year, as it deftly blends history, thriller and even elements of science fiction and fantasy, resulting in one interesting read.

THE SECOND SLEEP is set in 1468, and the opening chapter makes it feel like the Middle Ages. It is not long afterwards that we realize this is a completely different worldview, and the number used for the year is quite deceiving. You see, the event known globally as the Apocalypse forced calendar makers to reset that year to 666, which is the number of the beast of Revelation cited in the New Testament. So the novel occurs approximately 800 years after the events that set all of mankind on the planet back to the Dark Ages.

"THE SECOND SLEEP reads like a thriller as it is almost impossible to put down and begs the reader to devour it in a single sitting.... Robert Harris has written an outstanding cautionary tale wrapped up in a page-turning novel."

Now it’s time to explain this unique tale’s obscure title. Author A. Roger Ekrich states in AT DAY'S CLOSE that there is an initial interval of slumber referred to as “first sleep,” followed by “second sleep” or “morning sleep.” These phases last roughly the same time and are often accompanied by the dream state. In reading THE SECOND SLEEP, I interpreted the title as symbolizing the second way of life that succeeded the “old way” --- our current way of life --- which ended with the Apocalypse.

A young pastor, Christopher Fairfax, is our protagonist, and all of the action takes place over a period of six days. During this time, Fairfax has traveled from his parish to a remote Wessex village. The purpose of this trip is to oversee the laying to rest of Father Thomas Lacy, his mentor and predecessor. Fairfax notices immediately that the town is extremely quiet, and mention of Lacy's death is often accompanied by a look or a whisper, signifying that he may have been silenced rather than merely slipping away into the hands of death.

After the funeral, Fairfax stays in Lacy's old quarters and is taken by the size and breadth of his personal library. While looking through the various volumes and tomes, he makes an additional discovery. Some physical artifacts are hidden away in sealed bags. One in particular amazes him as he holds in his hands an item he only had read about or heard whispered in historical recollections. It is a communication device that has an interesting mark on the back depicting an apple with a bite taken out of it. Fairfax learns that Lacy may have had more than just a passing interest in artifacts from the old world and wonders if the length of his curiosities may have led to his untimely death.

Throughout his stay, Fairfax is haunted by his dream-filled second sleep that features his parents and sister, all of whom perished from the sweating fever, reaching out to him for something just before he wakes up with a start. Is this a warning for him to heed, or just the remnants of his own guilt over surviving the illness that claimed the rest of his family? The remaining time Fairfax spends in the village is used for a quest that partners him with a small group of local citizens, in particular a man named Nicholas Shadwell, who is to be tried for heresy. This is ironic, since he is visiting to speak about the heresy of the ancient world and to warn everyone about the perils if they are to repeat the activities that ended that world. If Lacy was indeed a heretic, then Fairfax needs to know everything he knew and how he found out about it before anyone turns on him for the same predilections.

THE SECOND SLEEP reads like a thriller as it is almost impossible to put down and begs the reader to devour it in a single sitting. I believe it would make for a terrific film or miniseries. The setting is so unique and speaks directly to the indulgences of our present society, and how we need to heed certain warnings lest we find ourselves plunged back into our own dark age. Robert Harris has written an outstanding cautionary tale wrapped up in a page-turning novel.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 22, 2019

The Second Sleep
by Robert Harris