“Roman Britain in 91 AD is a raw frontier province, a troublesome part of the mighty Empire ruled by Domitian Caesar. Tension is especially high in the north, where Aurelia Marcella, a young innkeeper from Italy, runs the Oak Tree Mansio on the road to York.
A string of savage murders disrupts her peaceful life, and she and her Roman friends find themselves under attack from a secret native war-band, the Shadow-men, whose aim is to drive all Romans out. A traveler, Quintus, is nearly killed close to the inn, and he and Aurelia must track down the rebel warriors and identify their mysterious masked leader, the Shadow of Death.”
A few points. It’s actually set in 1270 AD in a priory and concerns the death of Brother Rupert, who has apparently killed himself by (brace yourself) castrating himself. Prioress Eleanor, newly-appointed to the role against the wishes of everybody else, and Brother Thomas, a monk with dark secrets, forced into investigating financial problems at the priory by a mysterious master. Do you think that they made a slight mistake on the website? The fact that this book actually appears twice at different prices – the one I got was the cheaper one – just might support this theory.
OK, enough niggling, let’s get to the book itself. Another name ticked off on my Historical Writers Challenge, but is it any good?
Priscilla Royal is a California based writer who has so far produced seven books in this series. I’d never heard of her, but came across this book on my trawl through Kindle bargains. Thought I’d give it a try as I fancied another historical author. Got a bit of a surprise as I was expecting a Roman mystery, but never mind, eh?
So, what have we got here? The reluctant prioress Eleanor is an interesting character – she is the primary sleuth and her struggle to gain acceptance into the community provides a good background to the murder. It can be difficult to mark time until the next murder/solution of the mystery, especially early in a book, and I found myself, for the most part, engaged by the goings on. The rest of the cast in the priory are engaging as well and it’s an interesting enough ensemble.
However, Brother Thomas is another issue. His background is… odd. Basically a moment of lust with his young male friend led to a time being tormented in prison until, before he can be executed for his “sins”, he is recruited as a spy in the priory. Once he gets there, the past incident isn’t really mentioned, despite there being a similar theme in the overall plot, which did strike me as rather odd. If anything, his time in the prison has rendered him asexual, which is probably understandable, which adds a complication to the fact that Prioress Eleanor for some reason harbours lustful feelings towards him, for no particularly obvious reason, plot-wise.
Concerning the mystery plot, it’s rather good. The plot benefits from being set in the thirteenth century, as there are certain elements that wouldn’t work in the present day, notably the motivations. In particular, there is a clue that is rather exquisite. I can’t say any more without spoiling it, and it’s more of an explanation after the fact than a clue that you can use to solve the mystery, but it is very clever.
The murderer becomes rather inevitable about two-thirds of the way in – it becomes fairly clear that certain characters are innocent, one by one, and as such it rather limits the field. The clues aren’t really there to solve it – even the characters spot the murderer once some evidence basically falls under their nose, at which point virtually everyone in the room remembers a fact that incriminaties the villain.
Anyway, a little surprise this one. The characters are decent and it trundles along nicely. It’s got its faults – notably the anachronistic gay rights mini-speech in the final chapter – but I’d say it’s definitely worth a look if you like historical mysteries.