Royal, Priscilla - 'Wine of Violence'
WINE OF VIOLENCE is the first in a series of historical mysteries set in 13th Century Britain by US author Priscilla Royal. Twenty-year-old high-born Eleanor is the surprise political appointee to the role of Prioress of Tyndal Abbey, a joint house of nuns and monks on the East Anglian coast. Unusually the custom of the Fontevraud order to which Tyndal belongs was that the female Prioress would take charge of the monks as well as the nuns. Eleanor has been appointed following the death of the previous much loved elderly incumbent, deposing Sister Ruth, an older and much respected nun as temporary Prioress. Eleanor has been sent into in a situation where she faces much hostility, both from the nuns who preferred Sister Ruth, the known quantity as their leader, and from the senior monks who are not keen to have a young woman exert authority over them. To make matters worse, Brother Rupert, a senior monk who Eleanor was hoping would give her much needed background about the people and finances of the Abbey, is found brutally murdered on Eleanor's first night at the Abbey.
Eleanor is in a tricky position, needing to hit the ground running and learn about both the politics and financial management of the houses, at the same time as dealing with the Crowner (coroner) and other nuns' shock and fear due to the murder. Eleanor has to make some quick decisions about whom she can trust both inside and outside the Abbey's grounds. Relations with the local community are complicated by the ecclesiastic equivalent of the town/gown divide between the Abbey and the local inhabitants, many of whom are suspicious and afraid of the often superior and high-handed Norman people of the Abbey.
Eleanor receives some assistance from the mysterious Brother Thomas, also newly arrived at the monastery. The reader (but not the other characters) is made aware of Thomas's backstory early on - illegitimate son of an Earl, and a cleric at Court, he was disgraced and thrown into a cell after being caught inflagrante with a male friend. Thomas was rescued from his cell by a mysterious authority figure, on the basis that he carry out clandestine missions for him. In this case, Thomas has been sent to the Abbey to investigate anonymously made allegations of impropriety. Eleanor also receives valuable help from Sister Anne, formerly an apothecary's wife before taking her vows, who has some very convenient experience with herbs and practical healthcare.
This is a well-written, intriguing series opener, dealing with some sophisticated themes, such as the role of women, and attitudes towards homosexuality in medieval times, and about abuse (sexual and financial) of the church's authority. If the novel has a weakness, it would be that some of the characters express sentiments which seem slightly modern and a touch too politically correct for the middle ages. The plot unfolds at a reasonable pace, given this is the first in a series, and so much ground needs to be established in setting out the main characters and settings. Both the amateur sleuths Eleanor and Thomas are sympathetic characters. The author makes sure the background is well set for the future books in the series as she leaves sufficient loose ends regarding Eleanor's unrequited feelings for Thomas, Thomas's secret role. and the tensions within the Abbey. This is an enjoyable book, which should appeal to fans of the monastic mystery, such as the Cadfael novels.
Laura Root, England
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