Knights Templar Mysteries #21: The Death Ship of Dartmouth by Michael Jecks

Read: August, 2009

Amidst political turmoil, a man has been found dead in the road and a ghost ship has been found at sea. Meanwhile, the rebel Roger Mortimer has been sending out spies, threatening civil war.

I read this rather quickly while on holidays and the details were quickly forgotten. But I do remember quite enjoying it, despite being a little disconcerted by all the rape (and there truly is a lot of rape!).

Death Ship is a solid mystery with strong characters, and the historical fiction aspect is well executed. The violence, particularly against women, is realistic without being gratuitous.

All in all, a well-written novel and an excellent addition to any historical mystery collection.

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The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black

There are a few “medieval” cookbooks floating around, but this is the best I’ve seen so far. It’s the kind of cookbook that you can actually sit down and read through.

The recipes are divided by era, social class, and function. There’s a chapter on foods that were primarily associated with the cloister, for example, and a section for remedies. There are simple dishes with few ingredients that would be most appropriate for a side-dish or breakfast, and there are elaborate meals that belong more properly to a great feast.

Each recipe comes with a short introduction or with a contemporary passage describing the dish, followed by the ingredients list and instructions. Some license is taken with substitutions – sometimes multiple substitutions are indicated for choice – to deal with the fact that many of the ingredients are hard to find these days or no longer exist at all.

illustrations from contemporary sources are plentiful and printed in full colour, making this book a lovely source of medieval art as well.

I’ve tried a couple of the recipes over the years and enjoyed them. I’d love to throw a “Period Party” someday to really make use of this book.

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #3: The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh

Read: 10 December, 2010

Gil Cunningham is eagerly awaiting a shipment of books. But when the barrel that was supposed to contain literature turns out to have a human head floating in brine instead, he and his companions become enmeshed in yet another mystery.

Another great addition to the series!

There’s a bit more supernatural stuff (a ghost this time), but it’s still manageable in quantity.

I like that Gil’s station changes between the books. Each book is an isolated mystery, of course, but the character development is continuous throughout the series. I’ve really enjoyed watching Gil’s relationship with Alys grow and change – which it does in a delightfully realistic and sensible way – as well as their accumulation of companions – first a baby, then a dog. I look forward to reading the next books in the series!

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #2: The Nicholas Feast by Pat McIntosh

Read: 3 December, 2010

Soon after the events in Harper’s Quine, Gil Cunningham participates in his old university’s Nicholas Feast. But during the day, a young student is found dead. Because of his success in catching the killer in Harper’s Quine, Gil is asked to solve this murder as well. Joined by his love, Alys, and her father, he immerses himself in politics and espionage to find justice for a student no one seems to have liked.

I bought this book, along with the next two in the series, as soon as I had finished the first one, but I didn’t read it for quite a while. In my silliness, I loved Harper’s Quine so much that I was afraid of burning through the series too fast!

This was an excellent addition to the series! Once again, the mystery was interesting, and I love the relationship between Gil and Alys (not to mention Alys’s father). I’m not a fan of the supernatural element (the titular Quine from the last novel seems to be psychic – although like most psychics, his pronouncements are vague enough to be of absolutely no use), but it’s low-key enough that it can be easily ignored. Besides, the rest of the story more than makes up for it.

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #1: The Harper’s Quine by Pat McIntosh

Read: 11 September, 2010

I think that anyone who pays some attention to my reviews here would easily be able to guess that I love mysteries and I love historical fiction. So when I came across Harper’s Quine as a book that offers both, I had to buy it. But, as is so often the case, it sat on my shelf next to a whole lot of other unread books as I tried mightily to catch my reading rate up to my shopping rate.

Finally, finally, it was time to give Harper’s Quine a turn, and I immediately regretted that I had waited so long!

Gil Cunningham is expected to enter the priesthood. But when he becomes mixed in with a murder investigation, he is led to meet the lovely Alys, his future becomes rather less than certain.

I really enjoyed this books for quite a few reasons. The biggest is that the mystery is solvable by the reader – pay attention while Gil gathers clues, and it’s possible to figure out the murder rather early on. It’s a little frustrating to see Gil continue to stumble about in ignorance, but it’s immensely satisfying to be proven correct at the end. These are my favourite sort of mysteries!

Another aspect I really enjoyed was the relationship with Alys. Alys is an active participant in the mystery solving. She’s smart, capable, and contributes a lot to the detective work. But at the same time, this doesn’t feel anachronistic. Unlike Rowland’s Uechi Reiko, Alys is not a modern feminist trapped in the past. She’s a strong woman, but she’s still plausible. And, as a woman, she has many responsibilities. While her father and lover are out having great adventures, she must remain mindful of her household and its need to be continuously managed.And she can’t just “do it all” – there are times when she can’t get to a particular task that’s relevant to the mystery because she is occupied with being the lady of the house.

If I had to look for a flaw, it would be with the fate of the baddie. I’ve complained about this before, I know, but I find it rather distasteful when the baddie(s) meets with a gruesome end. I understand that it’s supposed to be cathartic, or some such nonsense, but it just strikes me as barbaric. A simple hanging, while only slightly less brutal, would at least have the benefit of being that age’s expression of justice.

But leaving that aside, this was a truly remarkable book, a rare gem. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who is a fan of mysteries and/or historical fiction!

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Saga by Jeff Janoda

Read: 1 April, 2010

In Medieval Iceland, two farmers fight over a piece of land. When Ulfar turns to a local chieftain for help, he sets in motion a series of events, of schemes and counter-schemes, that will not be put to rest until much blood has been spilled and the political landscape of Swan’s Fjord has been changed forever.

Saga is a wonderful book based on the old Icelandic sagas. The story is fantastic and the storytelling does it justice. Janoda manages to build and maintain suspense. and the climax is masterfully pulled off. He also manages to capture the element of “cabin fever” in a landscape that forces families to be indoors for many months each year. This was one of those books that I felt sad to finish, wishing it could have kept going. Definitely a rare treasure of a book and highly recommended!

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Mistress of the Art of Death #4: A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Read: 24 June, 2010

Adelia Aguilar has been enjoying a simple life with her daughter and friends, but King Henry II has come for her again. This time, he needs her to accompany his sister, Joanna, to Sicily. To ensure that Adelia returns when the task is completed, he keeps her daughter in England as a hostage. As the procession makes its way, strange things start to happen and Adelia is suspected of witchcraft.

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said for the last three books. If you’ve enjoyed the last three, you’ll enjoy this one too.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #3: Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

Read: 21 November, 2009

Two bodies have been found in Glastonbury, and King Henry II sends Adelia Aguilar to confirm that the two mysterious skeletons belong to King Arthur and his lady Guinevere. If Henry can prove once and for all that Arthur is nothing more than a pile of bones, it will crush the Celt rebellion for good.

But things are never quite so simple. What should have been just a short trip to identify some remains quickly turns into a life or death struggle for Adelia and her companions.

Grave Goods is another excellent addition to the Mistress of the Art of Death series. Adelia is still something of a Mary Sue, but the plot is so interesting that this is quickly forgotten.

Throughout the series, I’ve been particularly impressed with the portrayal of Henry II. It certainly isn’t one that I’d seen before.

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Cadfael Chronicles #2: One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters

Read: 27 June, 2009

Cadfael does it again! When political strife leads to a mass execution, a murderer assumes that one corpse among many won’t be noticed. But Cadfael sees through this morbid disguise and, along with some new friends, he refuses to let the dead rest without justice.

As always, Peters delivers an excellent mystery with interesting characters and plot. Somehow, she manages to have a realistic and even dark plotline while still seeming innocent and unoffensive. There is also an element of feminist rebellion in the novel, as two women choose their own life paths.

Like most Cadfael novels, this is a pleasant and interesting read, a good mystery with good characters.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #1: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Read: 12 June, 2009

Something evil has taken hold of Cambridge. A child’s body has been found mutilated, and now more children have gone missing. When the town finds an easy scapegoat in the local Jewish population, someone sends for a Master of the Art of Death, a sort of Medieval forensic examiner. What they end up getting is Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a Mistress of the Art of Death.

Adelia’s character borders on the Mary Sue from time to time and a far too great amount of ink is spilled on her various traits. She is, of course, not classically beautiful, but even this has become a standard Mary Sue designation. On the other hand, the story is interesting – so interesting that I nearly forgot how one-dimensional our main character is.

This is not a mystery in the Holmesian sense. We are not presented with all the facts while the detective works it out and then fingers the culprit. Rather, it follows the more standard line of suspense novels that merely construct themselves around a mystery – a mystery that solves itself when the culprit reveals himself to the detective. And so Adelia discovers where the culprit can be found and so he reveals himself. In my own clearly constructed vision of what a mystery should be, I see this as a failure. However, it does appear to be fairly standard in the genre and, at least, Adelia does use her skills as an examiner to some extent when figuring out where do find the baddy.

One thing I found quite interesting is the view of religion in the novel. Adelia is an Atheist. But somehow, Franklin manages not to make this seem anachronistic. Adelia is an ‘Old Atheist’ – she’s polite about it and she is, still, half-immersed in the religious worldview. Even so, here is a novel that presents Atheism explicitly and in a positive light, without attacking religion or religious authority (a prominent religious figure is Adelia’s good friend and supporter), and without making a big deal of it. It was refreshing to read!

Another aspect that I found very interesting is the resolution of the romantic sub-plot. Adelia does not simply marry her beau, sublimating herself and her career. Rather, she simply decides to indulge in her love and her sexual desires in a way that allows her to preserve her independence. Again, it was refreshing to read, as it isn’t often that women are allowed a happy ending that is not marriage and loss of self.

Overall, Mistress of the Art of Death is an interesting and fast-paced read. While characterization may not be Franklin’s strength, she does manage to distract the reader with and interesting setting, a suspenseful plot, and lots (and lots and lots) of ichy gore.

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