I almost didn’t pick this novel up, not really considering myself much of a fan of the “historical mystery” genre. But I’m glad I did, because I ended up really enjoying it AND it’s the first in a series, which means I have hours of future entertainment headed my way now as well. Bonus!
The story is set in the time of King Henry II’s reign in England and begins by introducing us to the main cast of characters using a clever little spin on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The group, consisting of a prior, a prioress, two knights just back from the Crusades, and other Chaucer-esque pilgrims, are on their way back to their small village outside of Cambridge (after a trek to a cathedral) when they get word about something terrible that’s happened while they were away: four local children, kidnapped, tortured, and brutally murdered.
Village fingers instinctively point to the local Jewish population, hated as they traditionally are. To keep them safe from retaliatory violence (or, more accurately, to protect his largest source of income — Jews are the best source of tax money he’s got), the king orders that all Jewish residents of the village be locked up inside the castle. He then asks his pal, the king of Sicily, if he could recommend an independent, unbiased investigator to help the village find the murderer. The Sicilian king agrees to send one of his best experts on death, a young doctor named Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno.
Oh yes: a woman. This is going to go over really well.
In order to protect herself from the harassment and potential violence she’d undoubtedly experience if the villagers realized she was a doctor (women in England not being allowed to be professionals of any sort, let alone have jobs that frequently bring them into intimate contact with the opposite sex), Adelia convinces the locals the medical professional set from Sicily is actually her partner, a eunuch named Mansur. Almost immediately, they begin flocking to Mansur for all manner of health-related complaints, keeping him busy, them distracted, and Adelia somewhat freer to poke around.
She begins her investigation on the sly, casually talking to suspects, secretly examining bodies, but almost immediately finds herself embroiled in all kinds of trouble (not the least of which are her growing feelings for one of her chief suspects). As the mystery begins to unfold, Adelia finds her attempts to get to the answer blocked at nearly every turn by both her sex and the religious and superstitious villagers around her. In the process, we readers get a delightful education in the history of forensics, women in science, and religious upheaval during the Middle Ages.
I found this novel to be extremely well-written and it did a great job of pulling me deep inside the time and place in which it’s set. The mystery is solid (if a bit gruesome), I really liked the main (recurring!) characters, and there are juuuust the right number of plot twists. All in all, this is a real page-turner, and one I greatly enjoyed. Looking forward to reading the second one in the series, which should be arriving in my mailbox shortly!