As part of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, I recently completed two books of two wholly different genres and different times – the only common theme: It’s all about the English….
I begin in a chronological manner, though I read them in reverse order
Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal: Set in 1270, more than 200 years after Normans have conquered the Saxon England, tensions between the two groups still run deep. On the East Anglian cost, the Priory of Tyndal, sits amidst this uneasy peace and prepares itself to receive the extremely new, extremely young and extremely inexperienced Eleanor of Wynethope as the new Prioress. The fact that she has obtained this position as reward for staying loyal to King Henry III is not lost on the young Prioress, but she is determined to succeed and use all her intellect and her learnings from her aunt, the Prioress of Amesbury. However as she starts to realize that the Priory is not only in dire financial straits but is also severely mismanaged and duties are given not basis skills but rather per the need of teaching “humility” to its denizen. Before she is able to resolve the strained circumstances of the Priory, the place is rocked by two brutal murders and an attempt at a third. Together with the help of sub infirmarian Sister Anne and the newly inducted Brother Thomas who is the confessor of the Sisters of the Priory and Ralf, the King’s Coroner, Eleanor of Wynethope, must quickly track down the murder before an innocent man is hung for a crime he never committed.
Now for the book….let me not hold back and shout it out loud – I am DISAPPOINTED!!! The book is set in one of my favorite eras and culture (Catholic Culture) and it’s a murder mystery…..it had potential to be such an amazing tale! But it fails and that too miserably. The book is flat, the mystery is flat and everything is clichéd. Let’s begin with the characterization, young Eleanor of Wynethope is witty, calm and has complete confidence. She is completely unperturbed on seeing a viciously murdered body and does not bat an eyelid when the second murder happens or she meets a wild man in the middle of nowhere all alone. No doubt there were woman who had nerves of steel and who knew whats and hows of sex, but a 20-year-old, who had spent all her life save one year in a convent, should know so much about it makes one wonder on the plausibility of the tale. She is always telling people that they will not be punished for being honest and that is the only thing she ever says of any result through 200+ pages. The only human thing is her feelings for Brother Thomas which are anything but holy, but then she wisely summarizes that love of all kind elevates a person to be better. The problem with Eleanor of Wynethope is that she is quite a likeable character in 21st century, but somehow to endow her with the foresight and liberality of understanding of this century and replace it 13th century is just too much to digest. While I know there were very strong and powerful women in medieval Europe, the kind of worldly understanding and ability that Eleanor of Wynethope displays, would have earned her a place on the stake in 1300s. Then let’s get to Brother Thomas – somebody explain to me why was he needed? The illegitimate son of an Earl, he was caught in a compromising position with his best friend. He was then jailed and only released by an unknown benefactor on the condition that he becomes a tonsured monk who will work per the dictates of this benefactor. He is then sent to Tyndal to find out why such a fertile priory is bleeding in finances and who was stealing all the funds – which he never discovers because he is chasing the elusive Brother John with green eyes and has non holy feelings as well. Through the book we are aware that Brother Thomas admires Eleanor of Wynethope but only he has given up on women!!! I mean what? The good brother is constantly confused about his sexuality and that is all that one comes across through the book. He is introduced as a highly intelligent person with acute mental powers who had in past worked as an informative, but where these powers were during the 200 pages, one wonders!
Then the plot – oh! Lord!! The good is so good and the bad is so bad and our world can only be black or white. Just because the sub prior does not like Eleanor of Wynethope, he has to be the villain. The fact that a man who had ruled the Priory single-handedly for many years may dislike being usurped by a woman half his age is enough for the author to make him the true denizen of hell; a natural feeling of jealousy which is far more human and often the case in many such circumstances is not enough!(Spoiler Alert) No! We have to endow him with all the seven deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony!! One is not enough to paint him black, let’s do it in seven different layers! Could there be a blacker character? And what is the plot – superfluous sex and violence. Complete sensationalism and nothing more. That too sensationalism of the worst kind! The book seems to be written because I think the author just wanted to write a book! There is no other reason for it. The characters are unreal, there is no plot and if there is something called a flat storyline, then this must 10 feet under and still digging!
This I know has to be one of my most caustic reviews and I know I am in no place to judge anyone’s talent, especially considering that Ms. Royal has published this and several more works, while I struggle to still find a foothold; however as a reader I can say that it’s a shame that such promise was laid to waste.
I need to quickly read a Susana Gregory or a CJ Sansome to restore my equilibrium and faith in the genre of medieval mysteries!!!
P.S. I will review The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas for the next post, considering this vitriolic was long enough!