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review 2017-02-18 18:37
Christmas in (Medieval) Paris
Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists (Mariana de la Mar Book 1) - Jim Hawkey

I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author

in return for an honest review.


Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is Book 2 of the Mariana de la Mar series of novels set in the 1370s in Spain and France. It is preceded by two other books, The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) and a prequel, Mariana la Loca, but it is the only one of the three that is a real Medieval Mystery, and is in my view the best one to start with. It is not only very much a stand-alone but the first two are both in a sense prequels to it. Mariana la Loca, the official prequel, tells of Mariana's childhood in the south of Spain, up to the point where, at the age of fourteen, and following the death of her father, she is abducted and sold into slavery. The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) takes us from that point to her arrival in Paris.


Now she is in Paris and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a student at the university there. But her life is still beset with difficulties.


For a start, the university admits only boys and men to lectures, so she has to dress as a boy. On top of that, her self-appointed guardian, Ferchard (Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale), an old friend of her father's (who was a Scot living in exile in Spain) insists that she must now grow up and be the lady (Lady Marian MacElpin) she was born to be, and turn her back on the years spent as a prostitute in Spain and Avignon. But this, she finds, is not so easily done.


However, her experience of life and knowledge of the world is much greater than that of her peer-group of students and hangers-on, so it is to her they turn when one of their number is accused of murdering his uncle, a miserly alchemist reputed to have a horde of gold nuggets tucked away somewhere.


And no sooner has she agreed to do what she can to help discover who was really responsible for the death of the old man than she learns that another murder was committed that same night (Christmas night!), a murder closely connected with the first one.


As the title implies, the book is full of medieval witches and prostitutes – Mariana is more than a little of both herself –  but others Mariana meets and gets to know during the course of her investigations include the Holy Roman Emperor, an alchemist himself and in Paris for Christmas, his daughter Anna, soon to be the wife of Richard II and Queen of England, the one-armed Albanian King of the Paris underworld, the celebrated proto-feminist Christine de Pisan, then a girl of thirteen, and the legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel.    


There are many so-called medieval mysteries about and feeling at home in the medieval period I have read most of them, but I want to say simply that there is more medieval magic and mystery in this one book than in any ten of the others. And more horror. Some scenes are more than gripping, they are mesmerising. Medieval Paris is unforgettably depicted and quite apart from that it is astonishing how this very male writer gets into the heart and soul of the all-female Mariana. (But then why not, when you think that Cadfael and Falco are both written by women?)


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review 2017-02-08 00:36
The Queen’s Man by Sharon Kay Penman
The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery - Sharon Kay Penman

Series: Justin de Quincy #1


This mediaeval mystery got off to a slow start for me. Justin de Quincy is tasked by the Queen to find the murderer of a goldsmith who had been carrying a letter for her.  I spent most of the book thinking it was entertaining but not great, so when some of the characters’ motivations turned out to be not as straightforward as had been implied, I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the resolution of the murder and I quite liked Nell too. Oh, and I adored Shadow.


I hadn’t read Sharon Kay Penman before, so I guess my to-read list has just gotten longer. Sigh.


This was the More Historal than Fiction bookclub’s February pick.

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text 2017-02-05 02:19
Reading progress update: I've read 12%.
The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery - Sharon Kay Penman

I thought this started a bit slow, with the whole temper tantrum scene that didn't show our hero to advantage, but now the plot thickens, as they say...


Reading this for the More Historical Than Fiction bookclub.

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review 2016-05-20 00:21
Wine of Violence
Wine of Violence: A Medieval Mystery #1: An Historical Mystery (Medieval Mysteries) - Priscilla Royal

I don't usually write two reviews in one day (sometimes, alas, not two in a week!), but today reading has been more comfortable on my eyes than a lot of other activities, so here's a second review.


Wine of Violence is a historical mystery, set in 1270.  Tyndal Priory, a "double house" (one with both nuns and monks), has just acquired a new prioress; unlike many other religious houses, in this order (a French order, of Fontevrauld) the prioress, rather than the prior, is in charge overall.  And their new prioress, Eleanor of Wynethorpe, is only 20 - Henry III owed her father a favor.


The other nuns are not overjoyed to have a new, very young prioress, especially Sister Ruth, the nun elected by the sisters of the priory, before Henry III overruled them.  They are truly distressed when Father Rupert, their confessor, is murdered shortly after Eleanor's arrival.


This results in the arrival of a new priest, Father Thomas, who is not a happy man; he was given a choice between being burnt at the stake for sodomy, or of taking holy orders and doing the secret work of men high in power in the church. 


He chose to live, and is now investigating vague reports of misdeeds at Tyndal.  Like a monk being murdered.


Our two narrators are Eleanor and Thomas, and about in equal amounts.  The mystery was competently done, with plenty of red herrings, and the historical fiction aspect was not neglected, either.


I'd happily read another book in this series, which I believe is still in publication.

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text 2016-03-03 22:40
Absolution by Murder
Absolution by Murder (A Sister Fidelma Mystery) (Mystery of Ancient Ireland) - Peter Tremayne

A novel of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma


All good novels describe and recount what actually happened in some alternative universe. It is not, by definition, this universe. If it was, it would not be a novel. In a Historical Note at the beginning of Suffer the Little Children (the third in this series), Peter Tremayne writes "Fidelma was born at Cashel, capital of the Kingdom of Muman (Munster) in southwest Ireland, in AD 636. She was the youngest daughter of Failbe Fland, the king, who died the year after her birth ... etc." Not in this universe. And (just one example of many, many): "The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or since." Not in this universe.


Tremayne has created a wonderful – and I do mean wonderful – alternative universe and a wonderful character – person – in Sister Fidelma. Let's forget all this nonsense about whether or not it is historically true (of this universe!) and, as Tremayne himself puts it, "enter Fidelma's world" and enjoy it. For it is one of the best and most appealing alternatives to our own medieval history I have ever come across. A world in which I would love to have lived. A woman I would love to have known.


All that said, let's get down to what actually happens in Absolution by Murder, the very first "Celtic Mystery" featuring Fidelma of Cashel.


The setting of this book (and indeed of the second book in the series, Shroud for the Archbishop) is not in Ireland at all. This one is set in Northumbria, an Anglian Kingdom in the north of what is now England, during the course of the Synod of Whitby, the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Church Council that took place in AD 664 under the auspices of King Oswy and his cousin Hilda, Abbess of the great monastery which hosted the representatives who came from far and wide to attend the debates that would decide the future of the Church in Britain.


The Angles and Saxons had arrived in Britain as pagans, worshipping the ancient gods of the north, and were still in the process of being converted to Christianity. It was largely a matter of converting the kings and queens; the rest of the population of the various little kingdoms followed suit and did what they were told (or at least pretended to). Now the problem was that missionaries were coming into the various English kingdoms from the Celtic Church of Ireland and Scotland (though not from Wales, the people there still felt too much hostility towards the invaders), and from the Roman Church across the Channel in France and in Italy. And those two sets of missionaries representing two separate branches of Christianity held quite different beliefs on a number of points, some trivial, others more important.


One was the date of Easter, which the Celtic Church calculated by the same method as the Eastern Orthodox Church: half the population ended the fast for Lent and celebrated the Feast of Easter one, two, or even sometimes four weeks before the other half. Another was the celibacy of the clergy: Celtic priests were permitted to marry, and Celtic monks and nuns to co-habit. Another was the role of the bishop. The Celtic Church was ruled by its great abbots and abbesses, the Roman Church by its bishops. Another was the form of the tonsure. And so on.


At this council, King Oswy of Nirthumbria, effective High King of England, and his counsellors, would decide for the country as a whole: the Celtic way, or the Roman way.


Needless to say, top people of both persuasions were there, feelings were running high, and as always when there are religious disputes, unscrupulous politicians take advantage of it in their jostling for power. In this case, civil war could easily erupt, and Oswy's brutal son Ahlfrithis ready to use the Roman cause in a bid to oust his father from power should the Celtic Church win.


Then Abbess Etain, chief speaker for the Celtic Church, is murdered. Naturally, everyone assumes she has been killed by someone in the Roman contingent in order to silence her. King Oswy asks Fidelma, an Irish princess and religious, and a highly qualified lawyer, to investigate, along with the Saxon Brother Eadulf to ensure fair play.


Next, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit, leading the Roman delegation, is found dead. It seems he died of the "Yellow Plague", but will anyone believe this?


If you, like me, have already read later Fidelma books, and know that she and Eadulf subsequently marry, this does not spoil at all the pleasure of watching their interplay here at their first meeting. In fact the knowledge adds a certain piquancy to everything they say and do together.


If you are already a fan of the later Fidelma books but haven't read this one, go back and start again. If not – start here: you will want to read them all.

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