The Scandal of the Skulls

By Cassandra Clark.

‘I’m brilliant and everyone else is an arse,’ said the slogan on Hildegard’s T-shirt, and she meant it.

Hildegard, Hubert, and Hubert’s mates, a couple of ninja monks called Gregory and Egbert, return to England in the middle of a storm. Hildegard makes her way to Salisbury with Gregory where before she can say, “I’m the main character. Let me through!”, there’s a corpse dangling from a windlass up the cathedral spire and she’s already sticking her nose into everyone else’s business, but making little headway into the case.

She also discovers she’s being followed by a mysterious man called Sir John de Lincoln, who seems to know a lot about her, even her cool spy name, Mistress York. De Lincoln reveals that he was one of Thomas Swynford’s gang the night Rivera was lynched, but the killing disgusted him so much that he’s renounced his allegiance to his former master and his faction.

“I like Little Dick,” said de Lincoln.
“I prefer big dick myself,” said Hildegard.
“Who’s Big Dick?”
“Hubert de Courcy’s.”
De Lincoln looked puzzled.

While the nun is in Salisbury, she takes a detour to Clarendon to see her daughter, Ysabella, who is one of the Countess of Salisbury’s wards. The countess wants to arrange a suitable marriage for her, which turns out to be a union with de Lincoln, although the business is just part of his nefarious plot.

Back in Salisbury, another man is murdered, and the finger of blame points at Frank Atkinson, who vanishes as if he’s been swallowed up by a hole in the ground – where Hildegard eventually finds him. The evidence is suggesting that in spite of Atkinson’s apparent connection to both murders, he’s a red herring.

There’s also the matter of getting some gold to London to get the popular Sir Simon Burley, Ricard II’s tutor, out of the Tower. It’s all part of de Lincoln’s nefarious plot.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Hildegard receives a bunch of lavender, but when she reaches Clarendon, everyone’s gone. “Everyone’s gone, domina,” said the servant. What an idiot, thought Hildegard and ran around the house shouting, “Ysabella!” even though no one was there. When she does catch up with the countess, it’s clear de Lincoln has abducted Ysabella and her boyfriend, Ivo, and that they’ve gone into the marsh. Of course, de Lincoln falls in…

…and then he falls out because like Escrick Fitzjohn, the man is a human water bear. While Hildegard is wandering around the town, watching the May Day celebrations, de Lincoln appears out of nowhere and drags her up the steeple for the grand finale. It’s all part of de Lincoln’s nefarious plot.

Although The Scandal of the Skulls reaches a point where little progress has been made in identifying the murderer, it doesn’t fall into the same trap as The Butcher of Avignon with long passages in which Hildegard is going through a tedious process of elimination. In fact, the murders are ultimately less important than de Lincoln’s twisted schemes, and in the end, the former are no more than a distraction.

Hildegard’s character shifts at times as she morphs into one of those annoying people who thinks she alone is competent while deriding everyone else. Her trip to Clarendon is an egregious example of this, where she still goes about the place even though the remaining servant has informed her that no one’s in. She needs better motivation (beyond being the main character) to investigate matters that are no concern of hers. Perhaps she could set up shop as a PI, say, The No. 1 Nun’s Detective Agency. Ysabella comes across as an annoying 14-year-old Guardian reader who thinks that by sounding huffy about something, her wishes will be effected. Overall, there are more Guardian-like comments in this volume. De Lincoln appears to be unhinged with his empty dark eyes that are dark and empty. Brother Gregory is repeatedly described as having sun-bleached hair as if the reader has forgotten within a few paragraphs that he was in the Middle East for many years.

Overall, the story is well plotted. Even if the identification of the killer comes late in the day and is of no real relevance, Clark brings everything cleverly together.

There are a few typos in the Kindle edition, including the repetition of a long passage early on. This sort of thing shouldn’t be happening in the first place regardless of the source. There’s also the matter of the title, which has nothing to do with the the content. There’s no scandal and even fewer skulls.

Cambridge University Press accused of ‘selling its soul’ over Chinese censorship | World news | The Guardian

Academics and activists decry publisher’s decision to comply with a Chinese request to block more than 300 articles from leading China studies journal

Source: Cambridge University Press accused of ‘selling its soul’ over Chinese censorship | World news | The Guardian

The imperial government strikes again, and unfortunately, there’s not a lot the CUP can do about it if it wants China Quarterly to remain partly accessible in China, which is a step ahead of a complete block on the journal.

The comments in the Guardian article are from people who, it seems, should know the score. What did they expect might happen in a country with a frog-in-a-well mentality where the sky keeps getting further away as the walls rise higher and higher? What did they expect from an increasingly censorious regime?

One of the more sensible comments in the whole article is “[Andrew] Nathan said China’s list of censorship demands to the CUP appeared to have been generated “by a naive machine search of article and review titles” which had targeted key words and names deemed sensitive. He called the move “a useless overreach” by Beijing.” This tallies with my own view that Chinese censorship is cloddish, often knocking out harmless websites because on the basis of one site, the entire host is treated as if it’s tainted.

I also agree with Nathan’s subsequent comment, “What can it accomplish? I’m sorry to say that information control often works. But if you have so much money, staff, and time, that you can burrow down to the level of censoring academic publications in a foreign language that could only be used by your own academic community, then I think your censorship organs are over funded and you would do well to cut their budgets. As the saying goes, this is lifting up a stone only to drop it on one’s own foot.” Let’s not forget that the Chinese government spends more money on internal security than it does on the armed forces. Let’s also not forget the armed forces are there to defend the government first and foremost.

There’s little the CUP can do about this because even if this is a consequence of stupid AI identifying material from a niche, subscription-only (?) market, the government has a low level of tolerance for honest and open discussions and analyses of Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, the Cultural Revolution, and all those other noble episodes in recent Chinese history. With behaviour like this, China will merely continue to be top in all the categories no country should be proud to be top in.

The Butcher of Avignon

By Cassandra Clark.

With a major political crisis building back home, Hildegard’s prioress has dispatched her to the seat of the antipope, Clement, in Avignon to have a look round. “What about the bridge?” said Hildegard. Of course, replied the prioress. I hear que on y danse. And watch out for sexy abbots.

Hildegard has barely been in Avignon ten minutes when one of Cardinal Grizac’s acolytes is found murdered in Pope Clement’s treasury, clutching a jewelled dagger, which subsequently goes missing. But everyone’s favourite monastic ’tec is on the case, aided by a plucky band of English pages in the service of Sir John Fitzjohn, one of John of Gaunt’s many bastard sons, who is in Avignon to swap a couple of miners for a certain jewelled dagger which happens to contain some undetectable poison. Hubert de Courcy is also in town, but appears to belong to the enemy camp, being considered for the post of one of Clement’s cardinal. What’s a girl to do when her studly nighttime fantasy may be on the other side; or is he? What about Athanasius? Exactly who is this elderly monk with all his power? What’s Cardinal Grizac up to? Or Cardinal Fondi and his hot, fiery girlfriend, the steamy Carlotta? And whose familiar voice did Hildegard hear on the bridge?

At times the story gets bogged down. When Hildegard can make no progress in her investigation of Maurice’s death, the story stagnates. Then after the murder of one of Taillefer, one of the French pages, sur le pont d’Avignon (“He should’ve gone for the dancing,” said Hildegard sadly), the story stagnates again as our Cistercian Sherlock Holmes tries to work out who the killer might be from what facts she has.

There’s some special argument time with Hubert – they kiss, they fight, they kiss, they fight – except there’s not much kissing. But it tends to be a bit contrived as Hildegard flies off the handle for the sake of the genre rather than any concrete reason.

From nowhere, right at the end of the story, Hildegard’s old bungling nemesis, Escrick Fitzjohn, another of John of Gaunt’s little bastards, appears, accompanied by the usual smells and menaces. As usual, Hildegard manages to evade him, and with Hubert’s help (of course he’s one of the good guys), she legs it from Avignon. Even Cardinal Fondi and Carlotta are working for Pope Urban in Rome. However, Hildegard was unable to recover the poison, which Athanasius had already found in her room, and having opened the phial, had succumbed to the contents.

The Kindle edition of the book has a few typos, and possibly some jargon which I may have mistaken for typos. At one point the word “appeal” gets repeated several times over, but possibly this is medieval legal jargon where we’d say “accuse”. Indeed, there are a few times when Clark’s language is noticeably repetitious where some proofreading and rewriting would eliminate Favourite-word-of-the-chapter Syndrome.

And speaking of chapters, there are none. The entire book is marked by section breaks, but there are times where there’s a big jump where a chapter heading would’ve signalled a significant change of scene.

The Dragon of Handale

By Cassandra Clark.

Hildegard is back from her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, but doesn’t even have the time to unpack before her prioress packs her off to Handale where she can think about her future. Will she be a randy, friar-shagging widow or a randy, friar-shagging nun?

To welcome Hildegard to Handale, the podgy prioress, Basilda, has been nice enough to arrange the murder of one of the masons who has been working on a new extension to the nunnery. “Too kind,” murmured Hildegard. “I’m on the case.” And she starts to barge into every room like the seasoned fic’ ’tec she is.

It’s grim oop north, with Handale essentially being an S&M prison for recalcitrant nuns. “You know the sort of thing,” wheezed the prioress flabbily. “The ones who go round bonking hunky friars.” Hildegard blushed in shock at such behaviour. “Let me introduce you to out benefactor, Mr. Fulke.”

Fulke has a little secret in a tower in the woods, which is guarded by the dragon of Handale. “Dragon, my arse,” said Hildegard promptly charging off to the tower to find out what was being stored there. But there’s also a locked room she hasn’t been able to enter.

Meanwhile, Hildegard is also busy thwarting Fulke’s other line of business – selling off nuns –, and as luck would have it, Ulf’s castle is a sanctuary just up the road.

The action shifts away from Handale to Kilton Castle where the Earl of Northumberland is expected for a meeting which coincides with a crisis for King Richard. The earl’s arrival also coincides with Hildegard’s rescue of another damsel in distress, who is about to be married off to the Earl of Morcar as he attempts to re-establish his power base.

But a couple of questions remain – who murdered the priest at Handale (I know; Hildegard turns up somewhere and people die; a coincidence?), what happened to Mariana’s baby, and what’s Desiderata’s story? Fortunately, Hildegard is on the case.

Ulf, who is unhappily married, but still gagging for a former nun of his acquaintance, invites her to his castle for Christmas (probably so she can check out his battering ram), but is, it seems, thwarted by a messenger from the other great love of Hildegard’s life, man-babe Hubert de Courcy. But instead of scurrying back to Meaux, she follows Ulf, much to his delight.

Perhaps Clark found the story about dire doings in Handale couldn’t be sustained for a sufficient length because about halfway through the book, that particular plot has more or less been done, and the action turns to Kilton Castle instead before the tale is polished off with a return to Handale.

This is also a very nonstop story, with Hildegard charging from one close call to another, frequently through blizzards. The book might actually make a halfway decent, low-budget flick.

There are several typos in the Kindle edition, including problems with punctuation, and a good chance I didn’t spot a lot of them. There was also an abrupt change of scene at one point where Hildegard was suddenly back with the masons, but there was nothing to bridge the gap between this and what preceded it. I don’t think anything was missing, but the lacuna was awkward. In addition to this, chapter breaks occur all over the place. The formatting needs work.

This volume’s noticeable Americanism was the use of “come” for “go” in a number of places. I can only be grateful that Clark appears to be able to tell the difference between “bring” and “take”, and can at least spell words correctly.

A Parliament of Spies

By Cassandra Clark.

“I’ve had a splendid idea,” said Archbishop Neville. “Why don’t we invite Hildegard to travel to London with us?”
“Excellent suggestion, your grace,” replied Edwin, but not in an excellent tone.
“What is it, lad? Don’t you like Hildegard? Not into sexy nuns, eh?”
“It’s not that. I mean, I like hot nuns as much as the next celibate priest, but, you see, every time she turns up, people die.”
“Surely you exaggerate.”
Two days later.
“How many dead so far, Edwin.”
“Six to half a dozen.”
“And how far have we travelled?”
“We haven’t actually left the palace.”

Yes, she’s back, and they’re dropping like flies as she travels with the archbishop’s entourage to London, where the king has summoned parliament. He also has to contend with his uncles and their machinations, not to mention his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and Bolingbroke’s half brother, Thomas Swynford. And if this lot wasn’t enough, the French are on the verge of invading.

On top of this, an old acquaintance of Hildegard’s reappears, which throws her career in the church into a spin, and she falls in love until her rather dangerous liaison comes to a tragic end.

The story is connected to Sir Ralph Standish, whose murder of Wat Tyler was rewarded, but having failed to achieve his second aim, which was the assassination of King Richard, he was poisoned. The poisoner was rumbled by one of Archbishop Neville’s retainers, but there is also a connection to the king’s wife, Anne of Bohemia, having a miscarriage, deliberately induced to weaken Richard’s position.

A Parliament of Spies doesn’t have a particular narrative thread. The journey to London includes a murder and a maiming. In London, Hildegard is caught up in various intrigues and and affair, but overall, there’s a lack of focus. Unlike previous volumes which tend to have the climax of the main plot first, followed by the climaxes of the subplots in a drawn-out denouement, this book has a high point, the lynching, but it comes as a random event, a result of irrational mob violence.

In the end, Hildegard must renew her vows as a nun, but she gets permission to toddle off to Santiago de Compostela on a pilgrimage first (and there’s a cameo from Geoffrey Chaucer).

There’s not much to add apart from observations about the usual unnecessary Americanisms, the jargon (some of which is actually anachronistic), and Hildegard’s frequent appearances in the thick of the action.

“I’m the main character. Let me through.”

The Law of Angels

By Cassandra Clark.

When two stray girls, the traumatised Maud and talkative Petronilla, turn up at Hildegard’s remote establishment, trouble is sure to follow – and it does when some right villains turn up and give the place a thorough going-over. With her two new charges, the nun heads off to York, where she has business with a candlemaker, and Archbishop Neville with regard to the Cross of Constantine (uh-oh!) The town is preparing for the festival of Corpus Christi, but the Peasants’ Revolt and opposition to John of Gaunt form strong undercurrents in the area.

And before you can say “Sicut erat in principio”, Hildegard is busy running towards every danger that York has to offer. Fanatical, extremist nunnery? Tick that one off. Explosions and fires? Tick that one off. Midnight meetings with rebels and murderous battles? Tick that one off. Sneaking up to remote mills where hot babes are being held against their will? Tick that one off. Rescuing Maud from wicked knights, and escaping from a religious fanatic from the nunnery? Keep ticking those boxes. A medieval nun’s hair-raising adventures never end.

Clark once again opts for her multi-climactic style of storytelling, but like the first volume, seems to resolve the main plot a little too soon, leaving the B, C, D, etc. plots to be wrapped up in a long tail, which undermines the effectiveness of the narrative. Once the subplots had been concluded, the novel should really have finished with Maud and Petronilla narrowly escaping from the lecherous advances of Henry Bolingbroke or his dad, followed by a brief epilogue.

The book is still garnished with a smattering of inappropriate Americanisms, and there are strong arguments for the removal of various scenes and descriptions, especially of activity in York, which merely impede the progress of the actual narrative in this idealised, 21st-century portrayal of medieval skulduggery.