Sixth Century Ireland and the abbey of Kildare. The abbey houses the bones of Saint Brigid, attracting visitors and donations alike. But the abbey seems under threat – a newly built church burns down and worse, the bones of St Brigid have been stolen.
Sister Deirdre is out of favour – never the most popular nun at the abbey due to her past life as a bard and a druid – but her popularity suffers more when she accidentally causes the church fire. She is assigned to find who has taken the bones, as she has more experience in the world outside the abbey than most. But when the list of suspects includes both kings and pirates, can anyone find the bones before the abbey is ruined?
This was sent to me by the publishers due to my interest in historical mysteries – Peter Tremayne in particular, who regular blog readers know is a favourite of mine. Tremayne also sets his novels in the same period and place – well, one century later – and also has a nun as his sleuth (well, sort of – Fidelma is a bit more complicated than that). So this book has some strong competition and it was hard to read without constantly making comparisons with the Fidelma books.
Philip Freeman is an academic historian and so should know his stuff. One of the most interesting aspects here is that saints at this time were presumably beatified in their own lifetime – characters in the story actually knew Brigid, which leads to the unfortunately unanswered question as to how they have her bones (rather than her body). Did the religious community, on her death, take her body and strip the flesh of it? Or boil it? Doesn’t sound that religious to me…
Plot-wise, it’s a straightforward mystery (although murder-free), taking the structure more from the talking-to-people-until-it’s-solved approach rather than being a fairly clued mystery. It’s not as straightforward as you might expect from the earlier parts of the tale, and part of it is clearly set up for the series. The central character has some depth to her with her background being revealed as the story progresses.
The primary issue that I have is the writing style, which has too many modernisms in it for my tastes. I prefer my historical tales to have an historical voice, but there are too many modern turns of phrase – the worst being a sixth century abbot repeatedly eating “cookies”. Part of this issue probably comes from comparison with the best of the genre – Jecks, Doherty, Tremayne for three – but this aspect of the book didn’t hold up for me. I think it might depend on your experience of the genre as to whether this would bother you – take a look at the sample on Amazon to see if it would you.
So, a book with an interesting plot and lead character but not without flaws, for me at least. Why not take a look for yourself?