Book Review: A Dreadful Penance by Jason Vail

A Dreadful Penance is the third book in the Stephen Attebrook Mysteries by Jason vail

Summary (from back of book)

November 1262 is an unlikely season for war.  But war nonetheless is coming to the March, the wild borderland between England and Wales.  Not the war that most fear between the supporters of the King and the rebellious barons uniting around Simon de Montfort, but with Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the Welsh warlord who styles himself Prince of Wales and who has united the fractious tribes of his land against the English.

The English are uncertain, however, where and when the blow will fall.  So, Sir Geoffrey Randall, coroner of Herefordshire, dispatches his deputy, the impoverished knight Stephen Attebrook, to the border town of Clun to make contact with a spy in order to learn Llewelyn’s plans.

At the same time, Randall directs Attebrook to investigate the murder of a monk found dead in his bed at the Augustine priory of St. George at Clun.

The assignment casts Attebrook into the middle of a desperate feud between the priory and the lord of Clun and reveals a forbidden love that can only result in suffering and death.

Favourite Quote

Although he could not help looking clownish – a little round man with his head wrapped in linen who could barely keep his place upon his mule – any fool was dangerous with a sword.

Review

This is the first book I have read in the Stephen Attebrook Mysteries and I loved it.  I have added the other books to my TBR list, but this novel works well as a standalone.  The author provides enough information on what has gone before to ensure the reader can, not only keep up with the storyline, but enjoy it also without feeling like they needed to have read the first two books before this one.

Stephen Attebrook is an interesting character.  I like his fairly abrasive personality and the antagonistic camaraderie he shared with Gilbert Wistwode,a clerk also in the employ of Sir Geoffrey Randall.

I thought the story was a little slow to get going at first, but a couple of chapters in and the pace and the drama suddenly picked up.  What followed was an entertaining, gripping read, that I struggled to put down.  The historical detail was fascinating, with sufficient depth to bring the time and place to life.  The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt the ending was too abrupt.

I am eager to read more of this series, and would recommend this books to anyone who has an interest in the Marches during the medieval period and to those who enjoy historical fiction in general.

Rating

Book Review: Inquisition by Alfredo Colitto

Summary:

Bologna, 1311. Mondino de Liuzzi, a well-known physician is staying late at the university where he teaches.  This is nothing unusual for he often stays late in order to secretly study corpses in an effort to understand as much as he can about the human body.  When a surprise knock on the door disturbs him, he answers it to find one of his students holding the body of a murdered friend.

The victim: a Templar knight.  But what is striking is that there is something very unnatural about the dead body: his heart has been turned to iron.

Mondino’s curiosity is piqued.  How could a human heart be transformed into a solid block of iron?  Is it alchemy?  In order to find out, he is going to have to help a wanted man catch the murderer and in so doing, go up against a dangerous and ambitious Inquisitor…

Favourite Quote:

It was clear to his scientific mind that the transformation of Angelo da Piczano’s heart was not the result of the shadowy spell of a witch, but the much more concrete art of alchemy.

Review:

A few times I’ve had trouble reading books that have been translated into English; they can lack fluidity, creating jarring sentences that inhibit the pace of the story.  Inquisition was translated by Sophie Henderson, and in my opinion, she has done a fantastic job.  It was so well translated that, if it hadn’t been for the brief mention of it at the start of the book, I would never have guessed.

Fourteenth century Italy was vividly brought to life as I worked my way through the story.  Mondino de Liuzzi is an engaging character; he has an interesting job as a physician teaching at a university at a time when science and religion are at loggerheads.  He is a complex character that finds himself in a very difficult, and very dangerous, position.  And as he tries to unravel the mystery of the iron heart, he has much more to contend with.  The rest of the cast are just as well thought out and believable as Mondino, and like the scientist, have their own secrets and agendas, making this a fast-paced, gripping read.

Filled with action and drama, secrets and revenge, Inquisition is a suspenseful read which held my attention from the very first page.  A number of times I wondered how the characters were going to get out of the situations they found themselves in, and there were more than a handful of twists and turns to keep me guessing.  I also thought the ending was clever.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  I recommend it to those interested in any of the following: the history of fourteenth century Europe, the early days of modern science, the Knights Templar and the Inquisition.

Rating:

Short Story Review: Flyting, Fighting by Clayton Emery

murder-through-the-ages-front-coverSet in 1192, this quick read focuses on Robin Hood and Marian after their wedding.

The couple are going through the forest, arguing over Robin’s way with women, when Robin spots a jumble of footprints on the ground.  Interpreting the signs, Robin believes a group of men have abducted a young woman, and decides to go off to try and save her.  Marian doesn’t quite believe him (the footprints make no sense to her), but she goes along anyway, the pair of them continuing their argument as they follow the trail…

But is Robin right?  And if so, who is the young woman?  Who are the men who have taken her?

This was a fun short story.  The chemistry between Robin and Marian was perfect, and the back and forth bickering was completely believable.  I enjoyed reading this; it was so amusing, and I would definitely read it again.

I found this short story in, Murder Through the Ages: A Bumper Anthology of Historical Mysteries, edited by Maxim Jakubowski.

Book Review: The White Rose Turned to Blood by Rosemary Hawley Jarman

the-white-rose-turned-to-blood-front-coverThe White Rose Turned to Blood is the concluding part of We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman.

The first book in this two-part series focused on Richard, Duke of Gloucester before he became Richard III, and told the tale as it was witnessed by his mistress and the court fool.  (See my review, here.)  But now Edward IV is dead and the main factions at court are trying to survive after the only man who could keep the peace between them is gone.

For this first part of the tale we have as our guide Mark Archer (who we met briefly in book 1).  He is Richard’s sworn man and friend; an archer with exceptionally good eyesight.  Through his testimony we are taken through the troublesome time between Edward IV’s death to the fateful battle at Bosworth.  Mark Archer is a likeable character who shows how devious political wranglings could be, and how the most innocent actions could be used to cover up the not-so-innocent.  But most of all, he serves to show us what kind of a king Richard might have been.

Then, for the second part of the book, we go back to hear how the story concludes from the point of view of Richard’s one-time mistress, who we only ever know as the Nut-Brown Maid.  Her tale is a poignant one – she is at the mercy of circumstance, and only learns what happens, for the most part, months later, so far removed is she now from the court.  We learn what has occurred in her small world since we last heard from her in The Flowering of the Rose, and then on, past the battle at Bosworth and into the beginnings of Tudor England.  Her story is moving, and the love she bore for Richard gives her the strength and the courage to face danger.

It is a very sympathetic and likeable Richard we meet in the course of these books, and I for one am glad.  He makes for a very good, very interesting central character and it would have been easy for the author to go along with the much maligned figure many are familiar with.

One of my favourite characters (from either book) had to be the young girl, Edyth.  But it is the emotive, heartbreaking tale told by the Nut-Brown Maid that really captured my interest, and even on occasion, brought tears to my eyes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, along with the first, The Flowering of the Rose, and I can’t recommend either highly enough.  A great piece of historical fiction and fluid storytelling.

Book Review: The Flowering of the Rose by Rosemary Hawley Jarman

we-speak-no-treason-1-front-coverThe Flowering of the Rose is book one of We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who will become Richard III, is a troubled yet passionate man.  He is serious and loyal, but when he loves, he loves hard.  This book tells of his story in the years running up to him becoming king.

This is history as told by those who are often overlooked by it: a king’s mistress and his fool.  Rich in historical fact, something which adds a complex layer to the storytelling for it was a complex time, this book was an outstanding read.  The fifteenth century world was very easily brought to life within the narrative, and the vast list of characters, who enter and leave as need dictates, help to unfurl the many threads that are woven together so that the reader may understand all that is going on during this period in time.

Richard is painted as a very likeable and fair man, and The Maiden, who tells the first part of the story, and The Fool, who tells the second half, are interesting characters.  They relay history as they see it, and although to some degree they are involved in what is going on, they are also removed from it.  They are witnesses to some of the most important events of the periods such as the struggles between the King’s family and the Woodvilles (the Queen’s family) and the scheming of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick known as the Kingmaker.  That being said, both narrators are at the mercy of higher powers.  But then so is Richard.

Political intrigue, witchcraft, rebellion and vengeance…Kings and queens, maids and mistresses, fools and their follies…this book has everything a good piece of historical fiction should.  No wonder it was such an engaging read, one I thoroughly enjoyed from cover to cover.

If the locating of the body of King Richard III and his subsequent internment in Leicester Cathedral captured your interest at all, I believe you would find this book of interest also.  Highly recommended.

I am hoping to start the second book of We Speak No Treason, The White Rose Turned to Blood, very soon.

Book Review: The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

the raven's head front coverThe year is 1224.  In northern France, Vincent, an ambitious young man apprenticed to the librarian of Comte Phillipe finds himself in possession of a great treasure: a finely worked jewelled raven’s head.  Fleeing, he returns to the land of his birth, England, surviving by creating fantastical tales to sell to those in need of them.

In Norfolk, Lord Sylvain, a mysterious man who is feared in the neighbouring town of Langley, has been practising alchemy for years, in search of the philosopher’s stone.  Nearby, in Langley Abbey, the White Canons are also hoping to get their hands on that which can give man immortality.  Neither shy from the shedding of blood in pursuit of their goal, though their reasons for doing so differ. However, each have something the other needs, and so the White Canons and Lord Sylvain must work together if they are to find that which they seek…but they cannot have both have it.

Caught in the middle is a young boy named Regulus, on whose shoulders their success sits.  But what purpose does he serve?  And what of the young apothecary’s assistant, Gisa?  Why is Lord Sylvain so insistent that she must work with him, alone, in his tower in Langley Manor?  And how does Vincent tie into this intricate web of the dark arts?

Those of you who are regular visitors to Sammi Loves Books will know that I am a big fan of Karen Maitland, and, having loved all of the books I have read of hers so far, I knew I would love this one too.

The Raven’s Head is a dark tale of superstition and alchemy, richly woven together with finely created characters and vivid historical detail.  Maitland doesn’t shy away from the darker side of medieval alchemy and magic and is able to bring to life a medieval world in which supernatural stories were used to cover up secrets from one’s past and were actually believed.

The cast of characters was diverse.  Each had their own story to tell and their own well-crafted personality with which to do it.  The places visited throughout the book are described in detail, so that very quickly not only can you envision the scene but also smell what the characters smell and hear what the characters hear.

The aspects of magic, alchemy and superstition were engaging and hooked me from the start.  The historical notes and glossary in the back of the book were as interesting as the story that preceded. I liked how each chapter began with quotes taken from historical sources on alchemy, adding an extra layer of depth and realism to the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Raven’s Head  and cannot recommend it highly enough, to those who enjoy historical fiction but also those who are intrigued by medieval superstition and the supernatural.

Book Review: One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters

one corpse too many by ellis peters front coverOne Corpse Too Many is the second book in the Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters.

As the Anarchy rages across England, the town of Shrewsbury has changed its allegiance from King Stephen to the Empress Maud.  Besieged, the town falls to the king and orders the execution of the castle’s garrison.  Once the punishment has been meted out, he sends for the Benedictine brothers at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s to help identify the dead and prepare them for Christian burial.

The Abbot Heribert naturally chooses to send Brother Cadfael, a former soldier and crusader to oversee this grisly task but what he is confronted with is more than the king’s justice.  A man has been murdered, his body smuggled in amongst the executed garrison.

But who is he and why was he killed?

As the first book in the Cadfael Chronicles takes us on a journey to rural Wales to retrieve a Welsh saint’s bones, One Corpse Too Many offers us a greater glimpse into the world of medieval Shrewsbury and its surrounds, as well as a closer look at the abbey itself, which is Brother Cadfael’s home.  We are also introduced to a number of characters who we will meet many times as we move through the series.

The level of detail threaded throughout the narrative helps to paint a vivid and realistic town, peopled with real characters, during this turbulent period of English history.  What I love most about this instalment in the series is that we are shown how astute and perceptive Cadfael is, and how he doesn’t allow anything, especially politics, to colour his view of the world and the people around him, nor interfere with his judgement.  He will do what he thinks is right, whatever that entails and that makes him an endearing character as well as an interesting one.

Alongside Brother Cadfael (who is, as I am sure I have mentioned before, one of my favourite fictional detectives), my other favourite characters that we come across in this edition are Hugh Beringer, Lady Aline Siward, Godric and Torold Blund.  And the ending, which I won’t discuss (of course!), is one of the best story endings I have read.

To those who enjoy medieval fiction and detective fiction, I recommend this series, wholeheartedly.  I am looking forward to rereading and reviewing the third book in the Cadfael Chronicles, Monks Hood.