Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal

Well, I’ve spoken before about misleading blurbs, but this one on Kindle takes the biscuit. Let me quote:

“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.

9 comments

  1. That sounds quite interesting, though my assumptions about ancient Rome were that same-sex relationship were pretty common and not necessarily problematic either. Certainly not a prison offence. Probably different for a priest of course, but it does sound as though this book is a-historical in many ways.

    It is weird when they can’t even get the blurb remotely right – I always enjoy a bit of PR hoopla but I hate it when the details are actually wrong. I just stopped myself bitching about the fact that on the back cover of A TRICK OF THE LIGHT by David Ashton that I just reviewed as they were only out by 1 year. I obviously didn’t when when I was well off …

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    • Well, the point is, this is not ancient Rome but 13th century England, where same-sex relationships were a right no-no, in or out of the church.

      To be fair to the blurb, I’m sure the actual book has the correct information on it. Just not the bit of Amazon where I bought the ebook from.

      I think “quite interesting” sums it up nicely. It’s no Doherty or Tremayne – the high spots of my multi-author reading, but it’s streets ahead of the inexplicably popular Cadfael.

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  2. By the way, can anyone tell me which book the wrong blurb actually applies to? It does sound rather interesting…

    UPDATE – Never mind, it’s called Get Out or Die by Jane Finnis. Uninspiring title, although I see why it’s called that, but it does sound interesting… I’ll get round to it at some point when my TBR pile is a bit lower.

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  3. @cavershamragu Well by 1270AD I think all that Greek and Roman sexual liberation would have been quashed by a grim millennium of Christianity. So I don’t think that sounds too ahistorical. But is there any precedent for appointing a prioress to a male priory? I’d have thought those were completely segregated.

    Anachronistic speeches about tolerance do seem to be irresistible to some historical authors. I guess if you’ve had to write several hundred pages of bigotry there must be a strong temptation to point out that you don’t actually endorse any of your characters’ views. It must be a common affliction, because I’ve seen warnings against it in several (otherwise genre-neutral) writing guides.

    The blurb does sound like a copy/paste slip… At least she doesn’t also write genre-straddling erotic romps about space vampires!

    I don’t read many historical mysteries, but I do particularly enjoy it when the motivations seem plausible in context but completely alien to modern sensibilities. Medieval theology in particular seems to offer a wealth of scenarios like that.

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    • Oh, Puzzle Doctor had already replied and covered all my points. Curse my feeble internet connection.

      I think I should maybe give some of these a try. I did read a fair bit of Ellis Peters when I was young and I didn’t really understand the appeal either. I think I’ve possibly written off the entire sub-genre unfairly.

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      • Peters put me off for a long time too.

        Not wishing to bang on about it again, but I’d recommend The Nightingale Gallery – cheap on Kindle – as an introduction. Written, of course, by Paul Doherty

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  4. […] But surprisingly, when King John (who was, despite some sources, not a thumb-sucking lion) took the throne, clearly everyone was focussed on what a terrible king he was and murder stopped. The next documented murder takes place in Oxford in 1264, forty-eight years into the reign of Henry III. William Falconer, as documented by Ian Morson, was on hand to sort that out, but Henry was clearly losing the plot in his old age, as murder returned to East Anglia near the priory of Tyndal, as documented by Priscilla Royal. […]

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