The Poison Maiden by Paul Doherty

England, 1308. Having fled the Templar persecution at the hands of Philip IV of France in The Cup of Ghosts, Mathilde of Westminster is now ensconced as Isabella’s favourite. Not safely ensconced, mind you. For Isabella is the daughter of Philip and wife of his bitter enemy, the newly crowned Edward II, who seems determined to become the most unpopular king of England in history by granting every possible favour to his comrade Piers Gaveston. As the king’s party secure themselves in the Palace of Westminster, and his lords gather outside, demanding Gaveston’s head, news reaches the king of a plot against him. Walter Langton, a bishop imprisoned in the tower, is keeping secrets, but his clerk is soon brutally murdered, hanged inside a locked room.

As the death count rises, whispers abound that one of Philip’s agents, the so-called Poison Maiden in active in London. But who – or indeed what – is the Poison Maiden?

As mentioned above, this is the second book in the series focussing on Mathilde of Westminster, and, unlike most of Paul Doherty’s work, it’s written in the first person. And Mathilde’s voice is an interesting one, telling the story as she looks back at it in the final years of her life. It’s a similar premise to the Roger Shallot stories, but Mathilde is a much more serious narrator. There are hints of the fate of some of the major players and we get the first appearance, in a minor role, of Roger Mortimer, who historians will know will play a major role in the future of both Isabella and the crown.

As with The Cup Of Ghosts, the narration isn’t the only stylistic difference between this and Doherty’s other works – oh, see the note below about some news about those. As is necessary for the setting, there are many more political machinations going on here and it does seem on occasion that the mystery is put to one side at times in order to address the conflict between Edward and his lords. That’s not a criticism, but this isn’t as pure a mystery as, say, the Brother Athelstan books.

Unlike The Cup Of Ghosts, the mystery element is pretty well done but the locked room bit is a bit dull, to be honest – I think if a picture was drawn of the set-up, the reader would work it out very quickly. It’s better than the one in the preceding book – which verged on cheating – but it’s still not great. I spotted about half of the solution, but the nature of the Poison Maiden is well done.

So, if you like historical intrigue, recommended but don’t buy it for the locked room mystery.

Excellent news from the Bookseller by the way. Headline have re-signed Paul Doherty, intending to re-publish much of his back catalogue, including some if not all of the books that were not published in the UK – namely the Kathryn Swinbrooke stories, the early Alexander the Great books and the Nicholas Segalla series. More news as it happens.

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