Abbess of Meaux: The Law of Angels by Cassandra Clark

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Abbess of Meaux: The Law of Angels by Cassandra Clark

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: Hildegard, a medieval abbess and occasional detective, finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving runaway children, a bloody battle for the crown and a priceless relic, all set against the extravagance and display of the Corpus Christi festival.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0749009427

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A widow who remarried in the Middle Ages became, once again, subject to her husband, and many women of independent means preferred, therefore, the greater financial freedom afforded by taking the veil. After the death of her husband, Hildegard joins the Cistercians, one of the richest and most powerful groups in Europe at the time, and sets out to found a small convent near her childhood home. Chance leads her to investigate the death of several men whose bodies she finds on her way, and in each subsequent book in the series, she finds herself yet again risking her life to investigate and solve crimes.

In this book, the third, it is 1384 and rebellion is in the air. The Lollard heretics have been driven out of Oxford by the archbishop, and the youthful King Richard is still being denied power by his uncle John of Gaunt. Hildegard is told by her superior to give shelter to two young girls, an action which leads to the destruction, by a mysterious band of armed and violent men, of everything she and her sisters have laboured a whole year to build up. She travels to York, partly to take the girls to a safer place until they can find out who is trying to hurt them and why, and partly because her abbess wants her to secretly transport a precious relic there, one which would confer great authority on whichever ruling faction managed to obtain it.

York is filled with pilgrims: it is the height of summer, and they have been drawn there by the festival of Corpus Christi, which promises an extravagant array of goods for sale as well as the famous mystery plays performed by the guilds. But not everyone is in York for innocent pleasure or worship: factions less loyal to the town, the King and the Church are also in evidence, each with their own agenda. Needless to say, in such confusion, it is hard for Hildegard to work out which of the many groups are the ones bent on doing harm to her and her charges, and her journey to the truth is complex and many-layered.

Knowledge of the politics of the time could be useful when reading this book, but not essential: Cassandra Clark gives full explanations and settings to her stories. It is a vivid and lively account of medieval life and will intrigue anyone who has an interest in that period as well as lovers of detective stories. The struggles of the guild members to create the best possible scenes for their share of the mystery plays are light-hearted and convincing and only serve to highlight even more shockingly the violence and cruelty displayed by various people. Much information is given about the design and creation of stained glass windows, and the confusion, in the medieval mind, between religion and superstition is clearly shown. Indeed, once or twice one might wish for a little less information. This is a minor complaint, however: the book is a tumult of plots and counter-plots which twist and turn in a most satisfying manner while giving a full and absorbing picture of a fascinating moment in the history of Britain.

Many thanks to Allison and Busby for sending this enjoyable story to Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Another intriguing historical crime series, set a century or two later than this one, is written by C J Sansom. Dark Fire, Heartstone, Sovereign, Revelation and Dissolution are all consistently highly recommended by Bookbag, which is quite an achievement. You might also enjoy Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street by Indrek Hargla and Christopher Moseley (translator).

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