By Toby Clements
This is a historical adventure story set at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Starting in the Priory of St Mary, in Lincolnshire in 1460, it charts the lives of two members of the priory, Brother Thomas and Sister Katherine as they leave the Priory and head out into the world. With little knowledge of life beyond the walls they meet friends and make enemies and it’s often not apparent which is which. As they are drawn into the world of civil war, opposing armies and the associated politics they are faced with challenges and peril while largely ignorant of the world around them.
It’s a while since I read this and, opening it again to refresh my memory of the characters and events, I found it drawing me in. The descriptions of the harsh winter landscape, the harsher life in the priory cut off from the world, the characters painted with enough detail to be real at the same time as being mysterious, I’m sure I could read the whole thing again and enjoy it just as much.
Clements’ research seems real enough, his refence to the specific types of trees in the landscape, his knowledge of medieval life and the roles and behaviours of people in a religious community, all add flavour to the experience even if you have to look up the meaning of someone called a Pardoner. (That was a lesson learned when I finally got around to Googling it.) But these references don’t slow the story down. The fact that I didn’t know what a Pardoner did in 1460 doesn’t really matter, it’s just a job title. (It wouldn’t matter if a character was described as a Traffic Warden if you didn’t know what the job entailed so long as they were off duty.)
As regards the battles, and there are a lot of them, it is the Wars of the Roses after all, they are very graphic. There’s a fight scene fairly early on and it sets the tone for the bloodshed from the start. I wouldn’t say that the violence is gratuitous, rather that the story doesn’t shy away in its depiction of medieval warfare which must have been bloody terrifying. The sheer brutality of the people, often not just to their enemies, left me with a sense of shock, but in a world if Game of Thrones and the like this may be less of a surprise to others. I’ve not read this sort of thing before, having been given this copy by a friend and I’m glad to have it.
Having said that I would read more. Were I not busy with a reading list longer than I care to admit and my own fish to fry, I’d read this again. However, I have put the other two in the series on my fiction list of books to read. There are clearly some unresolved mysteries that are hinted at throughout and I’d like to know how they turn out and I’d like to know what comes of Thomas and Katherine as the wars continue.
If you like a bit of history, like to imagine what life would have been like in an age of knights on horseback, peasant armies pressed into service and people without human rights just trying to keep their heads down (literally in many cases), then I recommend it.
Four out of five stars.