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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THE LILY AND THE SWORD by Sara Bennett

30 12 2016

Northumbia, 1070

lily-and-sword-coverNorthumbria in 1070, like the rest of England, was still reeling from the impact of the Norman invasion four years earlier. On the whole, you could say that the English – those of Anglo-Saxon and Danish origin who had lived in England for generations – still to a large extent opposed the Norman incomers. This was mainly William’s fault. Instead of assuming the crown and letting the country go on happily as it always had, so that no one was really inconvenienced by the change, he granted all his Norman followers huge estates, dispossessing the English land-owners and building up an atmosphere of bitter resentment and enmity that would last for generations to come.

The heroine, Wilfreda, known as Lily, the beautiful heiress to large tracts of Northumbria – her father was a powerful English earl, her maternal grandfather the King of Norway – has already been very unhappily married once to a Norman, Vorgern, but he is now dead and she has reluctantly become the focus of a widespread rebellion led by her childhood friend Hew. William sends his most trusted, and most feared, general, Radulf, “the King’s Sword”, to put down the rebellion – and Lily falls into his hands.

However, she claims to be someone else, a friend of hers whose family have supported the Normans, so instead of sending her straight off to William, he keeps her with him – and falls in love with her.

And she with him.

And that is what is is, a love-story, (the) Lily and the Sword. Hew, a nasty piece of work, is represented as the villain, Radulf as a good man and a great warrior who is simply doing his job, serving his king.

It is an enthralling story, it is well written and it has a convincing background, much of it being set in early medieval York. But I can’t help wondering whether a young Englishwoman who embraced the Norman conquerors quite so enthusiastically – albeit in the name of peace – would have been as popular as Lily apparently is with “her people”. Imagine a Nazi Britain in 1949 …





THE BISHOP MUST DIE by Michael Jecks

24 03 2016

England, 1326

Bishop Must DieLady Isabella Fitzwilliam wept quietly as she prayed for her poor dead son Roger. She hoped that he was safe, but she could guess all too easily how harsh his life would have become.

Dust and ashes, that was her own life: everything she had loved and sought to defend was turned to dust and ashes. Her hopes and dreams, the children, the husbands – all would have been better had she never lived. To be born, to live with hope, to wed a good man only to see him die; to wed again, but to have him taken from her in turn, that was too cruel. How could God, the All-seeing, the All-powerful, punish her so cruelly?

The Father, her confessor, had told her that He would be eternally kind to her when she died; that her suffering in this world was to be an example to others, and that they would benefit marvellously from her bearing in this time of woe. She was a source of strength for all those who know her. A pious woman in adversity was a wonder to all, he said.

He was lucky to be alive.

I love that “He was lucky to be alive”!

The bishop in question is Bishop Stapledon of Exeter, Lord Treasurer of England. The downfall of King Edward II continues, and in the background are our two heroes, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and his ex-friend, the ex-bailiff Simon Puttock. For yes, in the on-going soap-opera of the Knights Templar Mysteries, not only has Simon lost his job on the moors but also his best friend.

In this book, Stapledon takes pride of place, as he has been threatening to do since The Templar, the Queen and her Lover. For the good Bishop, in an attempt to placate the implacable, has been sucking up to (I am tempted to use a much more vulgar expression here!) the brutal and rapacious Sir Hugh le Despenser and the besotted monarch who allows him to run the country for his own personal profit. Not that Stapledon can pass on all the blame to Despenser. He is pretty rapacious himself in his endless quest for more and more money for the great cathedral he is building. And unlike Despenser, he has the gall to claim when he is responsible for widows and orphans being lkeft homeless that it is all done in God’s service.

Naturally, he has made and is still making an abundance of bitter enemies. In this book we follow the stories of not one but three men, each the victim of gross injustice at his hands and each plotting their separate revenge.

As always with these books, there are so many strands to the story that it is very difficult to get into, with Jecks hopping mercilessly from one subplot to the other, one minor character to the other. But I made an interesting discovery. I had finally given up on the book, having fallen asleep over it so many times, bored and confused. But then one evening, in an idle moment, I chanced to pick it up again and start reading from the beginning and – hey presto! – I read straight through it with the greatest of ease and the greatest of pleasure.

For the fact is that in order to be able to follow what is happening you need to know who all these people are and – yes, you need to know already what is happening!

Like all Michael Jecks’ novels, then, a long and fascinating tale set firmly in one of the most traumatic periods of English history. And if it doesn’t grip you first time round, I think it will the second time.





THE UNQUIET BONES by Melvin R. Starr

1 03 2016

Unquiet Bones cover

There were advantages to residing across from the churchyard. Being awakened before dawn by the Angelus bell was not one of them. I reasoned that I could learm nothing from the corpses until daylight, anyway, so kept to my bed for two more hours. Had I known who lingered at my door I would not have been so sluggardly.

I stumbled down the stairs and lit a cresset to improve the dim glow from my east window. Before I could slice a loaf of barley bread for my breakfast, I heard a soft knock at my door. I opened it and found Alice, bundled against the cold, shivering there. I bade her come in, and asked her how long she had waited there.

‘Since the Angelus bell, sir,’ she replied.

‘Is your father taken worse?’

‘Nay, not worse. But the draught you gave him last night no longer serves. He needs another. You told me to come.’

I set about preparing the crushed seeds and root of hemp, added some crushed lettuce for good measure, then mixed the stuff in a pint of ale.

The girl watched me work in silence for a time, then spoke: ‘He’ll not live, will he?’ she said softly. It was more a statement than a question […]

My hesitation was answer enough.

‘I thought not,’ she said quietly. I turned to her, the laced ale before me. The girl stood, trembling yet from the cold, with a tear reflecting the lamp as it coursed down her cheek. ‘What will become of me?’

‘You have family. Your brothers live at the Weald, do they not? Surely one will make a place for you?’

‘No,’ she whispered, ‘they’ll not want another mouth to feed. Not mine, ‘specially.’

You get the idea. Just the kind of thing I love, and I’ll definitely be reading more of this series.

In this first story, set in England, the 1360s, Hugh is confronted by, first, human bones found in the cesspit of Bampton Castle, and then, soon afterwards, the decomposing bodies of two noblemen, a knight and his squire, found buried hastily in shallow graves in the forest.

He is Hugh de Singleton, the youngest son of a landed knight and a graduate of Oxford University and the Paris Medical Schools, and he has recently set up in Bampton as the town surgeon. Now it is to him that Lord Gilbert of Bampton turns in an attempt to identify the bones in the cesspit and establish if possible the cause of death and how they came to be there. All Hugh can do at first is to tell him that they are the bones of a teenage girl, and that she had at some point fracrtured her ankle.

The bodies in the forest, though, are known to Lord Gilbert. The knight had been staying at the castle as a suitor to Lord Gilbert’s still unmarried sister, Joan. This seems to Hugh to be more a job for the sheriff than a surgeon, but Lord Gilbert insists, so Hugh sets about interviewing people – and eventually comes up with a theory and a culprit that has everyone convinced – except him! As the man is taken for trial, Hugh is still searching for evidence that will save him and convict another – and falling in love, himself, with the stunningly beautiful Lady Joan.