Category Archives: Book reviews

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.

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.

The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez

By Ann Swinfen.

After being set a few mathematical problems by her [sic] tutor, the 16-year-old Christoval Alvarez is offered work doing cryptanalysis for Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. She not only deciphers messages between Mary Queen of Scots and her supporters, but also gets sent off to infiltrate the household of a Catholic family used as a staging post for messages; to tour the south coast to see where all the Catholic priests are being landed; and to deliver messages to and from Sir Anthony Babington. And while Kit’s doing that, she’s also working as a doctor, and she plays the lute with considerable skill. The climax of the story is the thwarting of the Babington Conspiracy.

The book is a bit like Ender’s Game, I think. Just as Ender Wiggin appears to be Orson Scott Card writing himself into the story as a boy genius, I wonder whether Christoval Alvarez is actually Ann Swinfen writing herself into the novel as an adolescent genius who is constantly being praised for her work even when she bungles things a bit. Although literature requires the suspension of disbelief, Alvarez ultimately comes across as a character from fan-fic around whom the action revolves even though she’s little more than an extra.

No explanation is given as to why Alvarez is pretending to be a boy, and at no time is she ever in any real danger of the truth being exposed. Robert Poley penetrates her disguise early on, but no one else appears to notice, and he largely vanishes from the tale. It’s also unclear quite why he’d expose her to Walsingham, but she firmly believes he’s a vile traitor because, in truth, the story requires it without really establishing that the man is anything more than a shady character operating in a shady world.

The language is punctuated innumerable times by “…, for…” when Swinfen, in the modern style, should be using “because”; but the former is merely the misapplication of Greek γάρ or Latin enim to English, and far from adding elegance to the style, it sounds dated and ridiculous. Every instance is preceded by a comma, which then pops up once or twice where it shouldn’t. I’m surprised the author never used “whilst”, but the reader is – thankfully – spared that. Another peculiarity of the language is a lack of contractions in dialogue. They’re not absent, but there are far fewer of them than there ought to be.

The style is somewhat clunky early in the book where Swinfen tends to get encyclopaedic along the lines of extended sci-fi explanations when some piece of jargon has been introduced (e.g. Captain Kirk: Power up the forward phasers. Dr. McCoy: Phasers? Mr. Spock: Particle-based weapons). There are sections where the exposition could be pruned back to nothing without any great loss.

The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez is really an exercise in wish fulfilment, which might appeal to readers who are minor non-entities, but would love to be the centre of attention, with all the best ideas. Alvarez needs something to make her human beyond being nervous but otherwise perfect. At no point does she ever need to struggle, unlike Matthew Shardlake or Giordano Bruno, and being anxious about Robert Poley, who never actually threatens her, is no substitute for being in actual danger. It might’ve been a bit more fun if she’d started as a girl disguised as a boy (to work for Walsingham), who was always reverting back to being a girl (as a disguise) and being praised for how authentic she looks by people who don’t know she’s actually a girl.

The Red Velvet Turn Shoe

By Cassandra Clark.

When Hildegard is dispatched to fetch the Cross of Constantine from somewhere in Italy, she knows the journey will be dangerous, and before you can say “Perkin Warbeck”, a clerk in Lord Roger de Hutton’s employ has been murdered and stuffed in a bail of wool, with everyone assuming that it was the gay minstrel with the lute in the dorter. Hildegard is not so sure and manages to get Pierrekyn Haverel to safety in Florence before he is eventually detained there. Her own mission is a success, but when she gets back to Eng­land, there’s still the matter of Haverel’s trial, with the odds heavily stacked against him until Hildegard produces evidence demonstrating his innocence.

Like the first volume, Clark opts for a break near the end followed by a long tail. While the trip to Italy is covered in some detail, the return journey is glossed over so that the narrative can focus on Haverel’s trial. Alongside this story is the matter of Hubert de Courcy, the studly abbot of Meaux, and his religious ex­tre­m­ism. The coda is better done on this occasion because it’s not preceded by a highly dramatic climax after which the rest falls a bit flat.

The background to the whole story remains the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which still plays a key part in what happens. The factions are divided between the boy-king, Richard II, and his uncle, John of Gaunt, and the suppression of the truth about what happened at Smithfield.

Clark keeps things moving along, although for the sake of the story, Hildegard is often in the right place at the right time, and is constantly permitted a certain amount of latitude that no nun would probably have been allowed at the time. There’s tragedy for the nun as well as triumph.

There appear to be fewer typos in this book than the first volume in the series, but there remain, as other reviewers have noted, some mawkish Americanisms which sound so wrong in context. In a similar vein, the American title is The Velvet Turn Shoe. I’d assume this is because American readers might think this is some Cold War romp about a gay Russian detective. Perhaps because the action is mostly set in France and Italy, the word “Saxon” gets flung around less often along with vague pronouncements about dialects.

And so on to Volume 3. Will Escrick Fitzjohn return to menace Hildegard once again? We’ll have to wait and see.

Hangman Blind

By Cassandra Clark

Sister Hildegard is a wealthy widow who wants to set up a small religious establishment of her own, and hoping to find somewhere suitable, she toddles off to see her old mate, Lord Roger de Hutton. But this being Yorkshire, there’s trouble at t’ mill when she stumbles across a murder victim, Lord Roger is poisoned, Ada the hot maid is murdered, Sir William kills one of the servants, and there are more shenanigans than there are days in the month. But don’t worry. Hildegard is on the case and manages to solve all the mysteries in the end. Eventually.

Clark has a bit of a mania for medieval jargon for which a glossary needs to have been supplied. But in spite of her familiarity with poulaines, chaperons and double latchets, she seems to be obliviously unaware that no one has spoken Anglo-Saxon in nearly 300 years, although I can’t comment on whether there was still a distinct chasm between the English-speaking peasantry and the French-speaking nobs in the 1380s. As far as I’m aware, that distinction was dying to dead during the reign of Richard II.

The Kindle edition has more than a few typos which should’ve been ironed out, but some of these may be the medieval jargon I mentioned above, which is why a glossary would come in handy.

The story itself progresses from left to right and down the page, punctuated by various incidents and revelations, but with about a sixth of the book left, there is a climactic contest between Hildegard and Escrick Fitzjohn as she and Brother Thomas fight to rescue one of the serving girls and her baby from him. After that, the story then begins to drag. William, Roger’s brother-in-law, has taken control of Hutton Castle and is holding Roger’s young wife, Melisen, hostage. But this episode fizzles out to be followed up by a duel between William and his brother-in-law, Ralph (actually, the cat wins that one), and an attempt by Ralph’s wife Avice to murder Melisen. And if all this wasn’t enough, a small army turns up outside and there’s a joust with a mysterious knight. By that stage, though, I was just turning pages trying to spot the next point at which something was worth paying attention to.

In spite of the book ending like a slow, wounded snake dragging its tale [sic!] along, I think I’ll give the second volume a go.

The Case of the Curious Corpse

by Howard of Warwick.

Instead of reading the second book in the series about Brother Hermitage, the king’s reluctant investigator, I thought I would skip to the latest instalment in the series to see whether things have markedly improved.

In this tale, one of King William’s hostages, a Saracen called Umair, has been killed by an unknown assailant. The king is keen to make it known that he’s not responsible and sends for Brother Hermitage and his sidekicks, who quickly discover that the Saracen had allegedly been conducting reconnaissance missions for William, but was, in fact, quite chummy with the various factions opposed to the Normans from Hereward the Wake to the misspelt Aedgar Aetheling (Eadgar Æþeling). There’s no evidence that the king killed Umair or had him killed, and there’s no evidence to suggest that the Saxons, Vikings or Welsh had anything to do with it either. Who could it be? Brother Hermitage eventually works it out.

The book doesn’t get off to a good start. Some Normans have been sent to fetch Hermitage, but everyone thinks they’ve arrived for a battle, and this goes on for pages and pages and pages. This is followed by a chat with William and his right-hand man, Le Pedvin, but no one can tell whether the Normans are dining or fighting, and appear to be doing both in another prolonged scene. The word “prolonged” tends to describe a lot of this.

The problem is very much the character of Hermitage, who manages to solve the mystery in spite of being a clueless halfwit. His response to any situation is often a weak, pathetic, “Erm”, and he lacks the necessary traits to be decent antihero. Wat possibly has more going for him, and perhaps should’ve been the main character all along. Cwen, who is a new addition to the team somewhere between the first book and this one, seems to be there to ask pointed questions and make pointed remarks about what fate she’d like to see befall the Normans, but apart from that, she seems to have no purpose I can discern. I was expecting (from her name) that she’d be a prostitute, constantly embarrassing Hermitage by praising God in a loud and erotic fashion.

Having read the bookends of the Brother Hermitage series, I’ve developed no interest in reading the intervening novels in the series. I think this is the sort of thing that might’ve appealed to be when I was about 13 or 14, but I can’t help but feel that even I could do a little better than this myself.

The Heretics of De’Ath

By Howard of Warwick.

During a debate in the monastery of De’Ath’s Dingle, Brother Ambrosius drops dead. Moments later, Brother Athan enters the room, accusing Brother Hermitage of murdering Ambrosius simply because he was the only monk present at the time. The Abbot, who is a scary bastard, sends Hermitage off to Lincoln, who meets Wat the Weaver on the way, who takes an interest in the confused monk’s business. Hermitage is sent back to the monastery with Brother Simon, who has been appointed the King’s Investigator by the bishop’s man, Nicodemus, mainly because Simon an imperceptive, pointless busybody. When the trio return to De’Ath’s Dingle, they find the builders about which no one seems to know anything have arrived, and the overweight Earl of Northumbria is up to something on behalf of one of his younger sons. King Harold turns up just in time to sort things out before he pops off to Hastings to smack William of Normandy – and we all know how that went.

The writing is not the best. It’s a little like writing down a sketch for an idea for a story, but the notes have become the story. There seem to be too many people shouting at odd moments, which makes no sense. There are other occasions where the narrative jumps from one part to another as if Howard of Warwick put his pen down for a few days, but forgot that he needed to finish of the previous scene or write some transitional section. He also has characters saying, “What?” noticeably often even though this is only occasionally a pun on Wat’s name.

I’ll try the next volume or two in the series to see whether the quality of the writing improves, but can’t overly recommend the book.