Fortune Like the Moon by Alys Clare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Fortune Like the Moon is proof that a writer of medieval crime fiction can deliver something fresh," trumpets The Times of London on this novel's cover. Bless their biscuits, they're absolutely right.
In 1189, on the eve of her son Richard's coronation, Queen Eleanor -- think Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter -- opens England's jails and releases hundreds of prisoners as an act of Christian charity in the king-elect's name. But her canny public relations gambit threatens to backfire when a young nun is found dead amidst abundant evidence of rape, robbery and murder a bare day's ride from London.
Richard, suffocating in the details of preparing for his coronation, can scarcely remember his courtiers' names. Nevertheless, he immediately perceives the danger to his reputation. Public opinion already points an accusing finger at the released prisoners. Richard dispatches Josse d'Acquin, knight bachelor, to Hawkenlye Abbey to investigate the nun's death and, with luck, scour this stain from the king-elect's name.
For Sir Josse, the royal appointment owes more to being in the right place at the right time than to any special investigative gifts. Acutely aware of his own shortcomings in this area, Sir Josse remains determined not to let his king down. Fortunately for him, for Richard and for the entire Hawkenlye community, Sir Josse finds an unlikely ally and partner in Hawkenlye's abbess, the intelligent and world-wise Helewise. Like cogs on a well-aligned pair of gears, their talents and abilities mesh to discover the truth.
Part of the freshness of this novel lies in the deft portrayal of life in late 12th-century England. Clare opens an unglazed window into the era without lapsing into the grotesque. Only once or twice did I question the veracity of research details, and those instances did not catapult me out of the story to any significant degree. Sometimes the monologues and dialogues seemed a shade too 20th-century-oriented. But, having traversed that particular Sword Bridge between historical accuracy and reader association myself, I could hardly hold Clare's choices against her. Even the chronic misuse of gerunds to indicate sequential rather than simultaneous actions (a far too common grammatical error in fiction today) didn't detract from my overall enjoyment.
However, I found the well-rounded depiction of the characters themselves the most refreshing aspect of Fortune Like the Moon. Abbess Helewise and Sir Josse possess a healthy awareness of their individual strengths and weaknesses, which makes them believably human without appearing pretentious. The realistic, non-preachy, integration of religion into the characters' lives proved similarly refreshing at a time when so many authors have an axe to grind against Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.
I raise a frothy flagon to the debut of medieval sleuths Helewise and Josse and look forward to toasting their many future successes.
(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)
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