My mother gave me this book when I was last home (I come by my tendency to buy duplicate books honestly), and it wasn't until I was shuffling through my TBR a few days ago that I actually stopped and looked at this one. I wanted to know which books I needed to find to complete my collection of Brother Cadfaels. Flipping through this one, I discovered it's a compilation of three prequel stories that Ellis Peters wrote over the years. Bonus: one of them took place over Christmas.
I love this book! It's illustrated with beautiful color reproductions of medieval (or medieval-style) prints, and there's an introduction by Ellis Peters, explaining a few basic details behind the Cadfael series, like how it got started, how he got his name, and why she'd never written any stories about his crusading days. She's also very clear, in a manner that feels purposeful, that Cadfael never converted; his entrance to the abby was just the next step in his life; a life that was always one of faith and belief. It was a wonderful introduction, and I got a very real sense that Peters knew her character to his bones, understood him, and wanted to make sure his readers did too.
As for the stories themselves, the first one, A Light on the Road To Woodstock, does indeed take place before Cadfael's entrance into the abbey. In takes place as he returns to England for the first time after the wars, facing imminent unemployment, and looking to move on to a new phase in his life, though he doesn't know yet what it might be. His last assignment for the lord who employs him takes him to Richmond during a court dispute with the Shrewsbury Monastery. Here he meets the Prior of the Abbey and is confronted with a mystery concerning the Prior's disappearance.
This is not a fair play story; the mystery is solved by Cadfael's observance of the people he knows and the human nature he's familiar with, but he does not share those observances with the reader. Still, it's a lovely introduction to the man, and the story is a good one.
The second, my favorite of the three, is The Price of Light, the Christmas story. Here Cadfael has been a monk for 15 years. A man of means, whose life has been a waste, is beset by ill health and realises he must do something to 'earn' his redemption (read: buy it, as cheaply as possible). He gifts Shrewsbury Abbey with the rent from one of his holdings, and a pair of beautiful silver candlesticks, both for the betterment and maintenance of their Lady Chapel. The gifts are made on Christmas Eve, but on Christmas Day, the candlesticks have been stolen.
What follows is far more of a fair play mystery, with Cadfael poking about, observing, finding clues and sharing most of it with the reader. The plot is pretty good for a short form mystery, and the story itself is just really lovely. Ellis Peters understood the true grace that lies behind Christianity and faith, and she writes it beautifully - never, ever preaches it - but Cadfael and most of his brothers are written in a way that is consistent to both true Christianity and humanity, and the struggle between the two is a never-ceasing one.
The last story, Eye Witness, is a much more bog-standard short story mystery. It falls back on a few of the standard tropes. Man goes out to collect the rents, is bashed on the head and robbed, thrown into the river to drown, rescued, and cannot shed any light on who tried to kill him. His son is a suspect, of course, and Cadfael gleans the truth not only through observation, but by the time-worn tradition (in mysteries) of laying a trap!
The most pedestrian of the three, it's still a good story, and adds to the fuller picture of life at Shrewsbury.
My edition was done by Mysterious Press, and if you're a Cadfael fan who does not yet own this, I recommend it highly, both for the stories and the charm of the edition itself.