In 1303 on the shores of the Dead Sea, The Old Man of the Mountain, leader of the Assassins, plots a revenge on Edward I of England. An imprisoned leper knight, captured at the fall of Acre, is released to return home and cause havoc.
Two months later, Edward is visiting York. Preceding this, two nuns happen across two horrific sights – first a horse galloping by with only the bottom half of its rider and second, the top half of the rider, burning with an unearthly fire. An attempt is soon made on Edward’s life, only for the attempted murderer to be burned by the same fire. Is it a message from God? Well, if it is, then God’s pretty cheesed off with a lot of characters in the story, as rather a large number end up being extra-crispy! Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the King’s Secret Seal, is charged to investigate – but he is tiring of his life as the King’s investigator. Unfortunately, the killer in the shadows is intent on ending his life completely…
Well, nothing, obviously, I love these books. Oh, you want more detail. OK, then.
As usual, Paul Doherty furnishes us with a fascinating look at the past, and there is a lovely tie-in to “real” history here. There are certain historical events – not going to say which – that this book is effectively a prequel to, explaining how certain things became known to certain people. There is also a fascinating portrait of the culture of the Templar Knights – a large part of the action takes place inside their estate near York. Those of you in the know, or at least who have read The Cup of Ghosts by the same author or The Last Templar by Michael Jecks, know that the Templars are on borrowed time at this point in history and Doherty uses this to excellent effect.
The mystery is pretty well done – there are a number of clues to the murderer, although each of them, if you spot it, does point directly to the murderer – this isn’t an early Ellery Queen book, but the big picture… I will just say that it’s very clever indeed. It fits well with what I know of history and is fairly believable – well, as believable as a story with multiple “Death by Satan’s Fire” can be. Doherty also does well with the standard cliché that is used when corpses are burnt out of all recognition – he does play a trick with it, but not necessarily the one you might expect – certainly not the one that I thought he was playing, anyway.
Also, we see a bit more of Hugh’s character here, as he is tiring of the death that follows him around – he’s been moaning about it for a while, so it’s nice to see him actually doing something about it at the end of the book. I’m still curious about Ranulf though, as he’s still some distance from the more dangerous character who deals with road bandits in the later Corpse Candle… well, that’s still a few books away.
One odd point – the assassin is called The Sagittarius, a name that Doherty re-uses in Nightshade, another book in the same series. I know it’s an obvious name for an a archer, but even so…
So, recommended as ever. A page-turner, history lesson and murder mystery combined. Who could ask for more?