by Ellis Peters
This book has everything: murder, politics, possible elopements and runaways, battles, mysterious heroes, snowstorms, fires, and more. And somehow it all works. Just barely, at points, but as a loyal fan I can overlook the coincidences that show the straining seams of the plot. Because this is Cadfael at his finest, in the dead of winter, with Hugh at his back, and a seemingly untenable tangle of mysteries ahead of him.
We start shortly after the sack of Worcester by Empress Maud's forces, a strike at King Stephen in the seemingly interminable English civil war (we're at the tail end of 1139, for those keeping track.) Refugees from Worcester have made it to Shrewsbury, but three expected refugees have not arrived: a nun from the Benedictine convent at Worcester and her two charges, a noble lady of seventeen years and her thirteen-year-old brother. Their uncle and guardian, a knight recently returned from the Crusades, is desperate to search for them -- but he is for the Empress, and cannot travel in the lands held by the King to search for them without risking capture or death. At the same time, Cadfael is called to the priory at Bromfield to care for a Benedictine brother who has been found stripped naked and beaten near to death in the snow. It is not long, of course, before Cadfael realizes that things are far more dire, and deadly, than they first appear.
I do really love this series. I am extremely attached to the returning characters -- Cadfael especially, but I am also really fond of Hugh -- and as stated in earlier reviews, I tend to grow attached to the characters we meet and leave within the course of one of these novels, as well. Characters like Josce de Dinan are drawn in a few spare lines, but that's all it takes for Peters to make them real people. She does even better with those she follows closely through the book. We spend a fair bit of time with Yves Hugonin, the young boy lost between Worcester and Shrewsbury, and he's a believable, tremendously sympathetic character. His sister is less sympathetic but all the more believable for that, too. We don't see a lot of the Shrewsbury group at all, aside from Hugh, as all the action takes place at Bromfield Priory and environs. It was occurring to me that we haven't really seen anything of Prior Robert, Cadfael's main thorn-in-the-side in the first books, since the advent of Abbot Radulfus, and I wonder if that's because Peters felt she was done with his character and Radulfus has Robert well in hand, or whether there's more Prior Robert in books ahead.
The plot here is, as mentioned above, packed. Perhaps slightly too much so, and if I have any complaint its that the coincidences needed to bring the murder plot to conclusion and those to begin another plot -- that I have to believe will be a series-long side-plot -- just really, really strain even my credulous belief. I'm willing to go with it because the trappings are so excellent, but I'll admit to a raised eyebrow and an eye-roll, particularly at the resolution of the murder plot. This is also possibly because of the dramatic fashion in which it is brought to its end, which seemed a little unnecessary. Though perhaps not out of character for the series, so it's not entirely unexpected, if not entirely forgiven.
What I might call the main plot -- the search for the Hugonin children, which becomes enmeshed in the search for, and need to deal with, a very nasty band of outlaws plaguing the Ludlow region -- is done extremely well. The tension builds until the conclusion to this plot follows entirely from events leading up to it, and even if it's a bit extra dramatic that somehow didn't seem out of place or eye-roll-worthy here. These outlaws are not Robin Hood-like chivalrous bandits; they're nasty thugs, slaughtering, pillaging, raping, and destroying everything and everyone in their path. I had a couple of bad moments where I worried for Hugh, Yves, and especially Brother Elyas, the poor soul Cadfael travels to Bromfield to heal.
An extra bonus was reading this during the best winter we've had here in Southern Ontario in ages. Reading about frozen brooks and deadly storms when we've got two feet of snow outside is a nice alignment. Peters does winter well, and it created a suitably chilling backdrop to the tale. Though I can't help but wonder whether monks got cold draughts up the legs, if they were just wearing their habits all winter? Cadfael's a hardy soul, but that can't have been comfortable.
Earlier books in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles:
1. A Morbid Taste for Bones
2. One Corpse Too Many
4. Saint Peter's Fair
5. The Leper of Saint Giles