THE BOOK OF SHADOWS by C.L.Grace

25 09 2017

Canterbury, summer 1471

Luberon put the cup down. “In our lives, Kathryn,” he said, “everything is simple. I am Simon Luberon, clerk to His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have my own little house, my daily routine, my friends.” He glanced archly at Thomasina. “And those whom I always think about. I attend Mass on Sundays, sometimes even during the working week. I pay my tithes and taxes. I do my best to follow the law of God and uphold the rule of the King’s writ.” He paused, breathing in noisily through his fleshy nostrils, his merry eyes now sombre. “That is the world I live in, as do you. But Tenebrae was a magus. His world was thronged by spells, curses, incantations, waxen effigies, blood sacrifices and blasphemous rituals.”

“So, why didn’t the Church arrest him?” Kathryn interrupted, slightly impatient at Luberon’s lugubrious tone.

“Ah, Tenebrae is no village warlock dealing in petty spells,” Luberon replied. “He really did believe in, and practise, the black arts. His customers were wealthy. More important, Tenebrae was a professional blackmailer. He acquired knowledge about the mighty of this land, which should best be left secret …”

This book is the 4th in a series of medieval mysteries featuring Kathryn Swinbroke, and written under a pen-name by Paul Doherty, author of the much better known Brother Athelstan and Hugh Corbett series.

It was this one which happened to come my way and I will review it here, but I see that the hardback (which I have in my hands) is hard to find and  buy and the Kindle edition is “not currently available for purchase” (and nor are any others in the series).

The Book of Shadows is set in Canterbury in 1471, when, as the author puts it in a ‘Historical Note’, “the bloody civil war between the Houses of York and Lancaster had ended with Edward of York’s victory at Tewkesbury. The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was quietly murdered in the Tower. Edward IV, with his beautiful wife Elizabeth Woodville and their gang of henchmen now controlled the kingdom.”

Doherty is clearly not a Yorkist!

In the Prologue, we meet Tenebrae, “the great magus or warlock”, a practising satanist who in fact makes his money by means of blackmail. And in that kind of post-civil-war situation, when all those who had supported the other side went in fear of their lives, blackmail was obviously a very lucrative trade.

Then Tenebrae is murdered. And Kathryn Swinbroke, a local physician and apothecary, is asked to investigate, along with her close friend Colum Murtagh, a King’s Commissioner. (How close a friend I do not know. It is not made clear in this one book, but I am searching for others in the series to get the background story, the on-going soap opera which makes such series so appealing.)

It turns out that Tenebrae had a large book, the Book of Shadows of our title, a copy of the ancient grimoire of Honorius; and in that book was recorded in his own hand all the secret information he had gathered about many of the greatest in the land. Including Elizabeth Woodville, King Edward’s beautiful and ruthless queen.

Meanwhile, in a sub-plot, an old lady is accused of bringing about a rich burgher’s death by using witchcraft, and is to be burnt. Can Kathryn save her? I have to say that so far as I know – and so far as I can discover – they did not burn witches in England at this time, though they did in Scotland and France. In England, they were hanged, or drowned while being dipped on the cuckin/ducking stool.

For Doherty fans – I am one, as most of you will know by now – essential reading if you can get hold of a copy.

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DARK DECEIT by Cathie Dunn

18 09 2017

(England and Normandy, AD 1114)

Alleyne took a deep breath and pushed her shoulders back, her heart racing. Something had happened to Father.

‘Who are you, my lord?’ she called out, trying to keep her voice steady. ‘And why have you my father’s stallion in your possession?’

The knight ruffled his thick black hair. She sensed his unease. He approached in tentative steps, as if preparing the right words to say. She took in the narrow, aquiline nose and thin, wide mouth. Light blue eyes met hers with a touch of arrogance. She stared back, not giving in to the sudden urge to lower her gaze. Blood pounded in her ears. Although he stopped at the bottom of the steps, he still towered above her.

‘Geoffrey de Mortagne, under-sheriff of Gloucestershire.’ He briefly inclined his head. ‘I assume you are the lady Alleyne?’

She nodded, unable to speak.

‘I bring sad news, my lady, about your lord father.’ The seriousness of his task showed in his features.

Geoffrey de Mortagne, the second son of a Norman landowner, and currently under-sheriff of Gloucestershire in England (this is soon after the Norman Conquest) is riding back from Lincoln to Gloucestershire when he and his men happen upon what seems at first to be a case of outlaws attacking a lone traveller. They intervene but are unable to save the man when a thrown axe embeds itself in his spine, or to catch the attackers.

They leave the dying man, Lord Raymond of Bellac, with the infirmarer at a nearby Benedictine monastery, after Geoffrey has promised to ride straight to Bellac with the news and sworn to stand by and protect Lord Raymond’s daughter in the dark days ahead.

It is this daughter, Alleyne, who, from this point on, the story revolves around. She is Lord Raymond’s only child, a rich heiress, and as such the natural prey of any knight wishing to acquire her property. In times like these – the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda is raging – there is no protection for those who cannot defend themselves. Any man could abduct her, force her into marriage – which in effect simply meant rape her – and claim her property.

Geoffrey is determined not to let that happen.

Add to this that Alleyne is startlingly beautiful and unbelievably naive, and you will see where the story is going.

I do mean unbelievably. I am not sure of her age, but she seems to be seventeen, eighteen. And yet, after a man tries to force himself on her “She sent a quick prayer of thanks to the Virgin, certain that the Lady had kept her safe. Whatever it was men did when they forced themselves on women, he had not been able to do it.” She didn’t know? A beautiful girl of seventeen, eighteen, living on a country estate in the Middle Ages?

There is also some editing needed, not simply words misspelt but some serious errors like “Will has a large contingency of his men stationed at your manor …” Which should of course be “contingent”.

On the whole, though, it is a good story, well worth the Kindle price. And afterwards, as with all successful historical fiction you feel you know the period and the people, feel at home there.





DEATH OF A SQUIRE by Maureen Ash

24 07 2017

(The second Templar Knight Mystery)

Lincoln, autumn, 1200 AD

‘He’s nowt but a lad,’ said Talli. ‘Looks to be no more than fifteen or sixteen. And from the way he’s been trussed, he didn’t string himself up there. Why would anyone bring a youngster like that out here and hang him?’

‘I don’t know and I don’t care,’ Fulcher replied. ‘I’m going to forget I ever saw him and if you two have any sense in your addled pates you’ll do the same.’

Laden with their booty, the three men made haste down the track towards the stream that had been the destination of the deer thay had killed. In its water the poachers would place their steps until they were well away from the scene of their crime so that any dogs used to track them would lose their telltale scent and the smell of the deer’s blood. Above them a slight breeze rattled the dry branches of the oak and the body swayed slightly, then moved a little more as the first of the crows landed on the bright thatch of hair that topped the corpse’s head. Twisted under the noose, caught by the violence of the tightening rope, was the boy’s cap, the colourful peacock’s feather that had once jauntily adorned it now hanging crushed and bedraggled. As the crows began their feast, it was loosened and fluttered slowly to the ground.

This is the second book in the series and I haven’t read the first, but that wasn’t a problem. You are soon put in the picture. An ex-Templar, Sir Bascot de Marins, is living at Lincoln Castle. He had already solved one murder for the castellan, Lady Nicolaa, (the first book) and now when another nysterious death occurs she turns to him again.

A young man, a squire, has been hanged deep in the forest. He was trussed up, so it cannot have been suicide. Nicolaa’s husband, the Sheriff, a rather stupid man interested only in hunting who leaves all his more boring duties to her, wants to blame it on poachers or outlaws, easy scapegoats, but the boy’s dagger and fine clothing were not stolen, so Nicolaa and de Marins think that unlikely.

It turns out that the squire, Hubert de Tornay, was an unpleasant boy. No one could stand him and no one is sorry he is dead. There are many potential suspects. What worries Nicolaa, though, is that the boy had apparently been claiming to know details of a conspiracy against the king. In the year 1200, “Bad King John” was still new to the throne and many felt that the king should really be John’s nephew Arthur, a boy who lived in France. What was worse, King John himself was on his way to Lincoln to meet there with King William of Scotland. The murderer had to be found before King John’s arrival for John was a suspicious and vindictive man.

The squire was also a notorious woman-chaser, so there are girls involved. He had had a rendez-vous in the forest with a village girl that night. But he had been seen riding into the forest with a woman from the city up behind him on the horse. Or had he? Were the villagers lying?

De Matins questions a charcoal burner and his sons who live in that part of the forest. The next day they are brutally murdered. Then his servant, Gianni, disappears – kidnapped. Gianni was a starving street-kid de Marins had picked on his travels, and had now grown very fond of. Was the kidnapper also the murderer of the squire and the charcoal-burner’s family?

It is exciting and well-written, and seems historically accurate. I am certainly going to read the first book in the series, The Alehouse Murders, as soon as I can get hold of a copy. I also want to know what will happen in the third book. At the end of this one, de Marins is faced with a difficult choice: to return to the Order of the Templars and full obedience, or to renounce all his ties with them and cease to call himself a Templar. What will he do?





THE DEVIL’S HUNT by Paul Doherty

3 05 2017

A Medieval Mystery featuring Hugh Corbett

England, 1303

Ascham opened his eyes. the library was dark. He tried again to scream but the sound died on his lips. The candle, flickering under its metal cap on the table, shed a small pool of light and Ascham glimpsed the piece of parchment the assassin had tossed onto the table. Ascham realised what had brought about his death: he’d recognised the truth but he’d been stupid ebough to allow his searches to be known. If only he had a pen! His hand grasped the wound bubbling in his chest. He wept and crawled painfully across the floor towards the table. He seized the parchment and, with his dying strength, carefully hauled himself up to etch out the letters – but the pool of light seemed to be dimming. He’d lost the feeling in his legs, which were stiffening, like bars of iron.
‘Enough,’ he whispered. ‘Ah, Jesus …’
Ascham closed his eyes, coughed and died as the blood bubbled on his lips.

When the book opens, Hugh Corbett is at home in Leighton, in Essex, enjoying his peaceful life as Lord of the Manor, even if that does involve the odd hanging (as on the first page of Chapter 1) which he certainly does not enjoy, though everyone else seems to. But this country idyll is rudely shattered when the King, Edward I, arrives at the manor house demanding that Hugh return to his service immediately.

A demand from a king, though phrased as a request, is in reality an order, and in the case of this king, to cross him when he is in this mood would be to invite disaster. So Sir Hugh, along with his henchman Ranulf-atte-Newgate and their friend-servant-squire Maltote, are despatched to Oxford, where Sparrow Hall is in a state of turmoil. Two murders have already been committed there. Left near the second corpse was a parchment announcing “The Bellman fears neither King nor clerk […] The Bellman will ring the truth and all shall hear it.”

Meanwhile, outside the college, in the city, this Bellman has been posting proclamations attacking the King and claiming that Simon de Montfort was in the right of it when he took up arms against the King. And these proclamations purport to be emanating from Sparrow Hall, which the masters there all fervently deny. Well, they would.

Also outside the Hall, another seemingly separate series of murders has been taking place. In each case, an old beggar from the city, by definition helpless and defenceless, has been taken out into the forest and decapitated and his head has been hung from the branches of a tree. Sir Hugh finds reason to believe they were not actually killed in the forest but taken there – from Sparrow Hall, which would link them in some strange way with the Bellman and the murder of the two masters.

Another perfect medieval whodunnit from Paul Doherty. Not a word is wasted, and the excitement never flags for a moment. Nor can one possibly guess (without cheating!) who the Bellman really is.





A GIFT OF SANCTUARY by Candace Robb

3 04 2017

The reason I have chosen this, the sixth book in the series, to review, is that Geoffrey Chaucer plays a role in it, and that, to my mind, always lends authenticity to any novel set in the second half of the fourteenth century, be it by Anya Seton, Paul Docherty, Jim Hawkey or, as here, Candace Robb. However, the whole series is definitely prosaic as opposed not only to poetic but to magical mystery writing; this author has no truck with fantasy.

The hero of the series, Captain Owen Archer, a retired soldier, lives in York with his English wife (he is Welsh by birth) and father-in-law, and his little daughter. His wife is an apothecary, but Owen himself  now acts as a spy/agent for Archbishop Thoresby of York and the Duke of Lancaster, and it is this function that gives rise to the stories in these books. In this one, he is sent to south Wales to investigate reports that Welsh nationalists may give support to a French invasion – or the French army may support a pretender to kingship in an independent Wales – as the next stage in the on-going Hundred Years War. Accompanying him is his father-in-law, taking this opportunity to go on pilgrimage to St David’s, and Geoffrey Chaucer, another agent of the Duke of Lancaster – and of the English King.

The description of St David’s and the set-up there, and of the pilgrims (naturally Chaucer is studying them so that he “might describe them in all their variety”) is excellent, as is Owen’s inner turmoil when he finds himself back in his native Wales and speaking Welsh again for the first time since childhood, but now as an agent for the English Crown.

As soon as he arrives, a dead body is found. Another body, not quite dead, is discovered and given sanctuary by a passing Welsh bard. The Bishop of St David’s wants Owen to investigate. At first he is reluctant – but then realises that perhaps there is a connection between the murder and his mission …

It is well written, and if you liked the Cadfael Chronicles you will probably like these books (though I personally do not find Captain Archer anywhere near as sympathetic a character as Brother Cadfael).





THE MIDNIGHT SEA by Kat Ross

14 03 2017

FREE TODAY ON AMAZON

Nazafareen’s sister Ashraf was killed by the Druj (Undead things with iron swords and shadows whose touch meant death) when Nazafareen was twelve and Ashraf was seven. Now, all she lives for is revenge.

When the authorities-that-be discover she has the power to link with a daeva she willingly agrees to do so if this means that together she and the daeva will be a match for the Druj and able to hunt and destroy them. At first, she distrusts the daeva, whose name is Darius, thinking of him only as another kind of Druj but tamed and under her control – litle more than a sentient weapon. But living together, linked like that, she and Darius find themselves growing too close for her comfort in other ways.

This is an alternative version of ancient Persia and features a form of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, in which two Gods fight an endless war, and people have to choose which side they are on, the Good or the Evil. (I have always found this form of dualism much more philosophically tenable than strict monotheism.) It also features both the prophet Zoroaster, the founder of this religion, and Alexander the Great, though here in this book they remain in the background; in Book 2, Blood of the Prophet, which I have already started reading, they both move into the foreground.

 

Extremely well written and highly recommended.





AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory

11 03 2017

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew’s shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
‘Matt!’ he gasped. ‘Come out of there!’
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew’s shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
‘What is it?’ breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. ‘It looks like a goat,’ he said.
‘A goat?’ whispered Michael, in disbelief. ‘What is a goat doing here?’
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat’s head nevertheless, atop a human body.

Like the last Matthew Bartholomew story I reviewed here (The Tarnished Challice – six years ago!) An Unholy Alliance is long, and slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew’s sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on “Lady Matilde”, a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] ‘How may I help you?’ she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. ‘I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?’
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
‘We have come to give you some information,’ said Bartholomew quickly

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim’s foot.

This circle is the sign of a mysterious “guild”of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people’s helplessness and gullibility?

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.