Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Kate Clifford #1
Published by Pegasus on May 3rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Political unrest permeates York at the cusp of the fifteenth century, as warring factions take sides on who should be the rightful king--Richard II or his estranged, powerful cousin in exile, Henry Bolingbroke. Independent minded twenty-year-old Kate Clifford is struggling to dig out from beneath the debt left by her late husband. Determined to find a way to be secure in her own wealth and establish her independence in a male dominated society, Kate turns one of her properties near the minster into a guest house and sets up a business. In a dance of power, she also quietly rents the discreet bedchambers to the wealthy, powerful merchants of York for nights with their mistresses.But the brutal murder of a mysterious guest and the disappearance of his companion for the evening threatens all that Kate has built. Before others in town hear word of a looming scandal, she must call upon all of her hard-won survival skills to save herself from ruin.
This story has the feeling of beginning in the middle. When the book opens, Katherine Clifford is a young widow in the city of York in 1399. She is attempting, semi-successfully, to carve out an existence as an independent woman, in spite of the machinations of her late husband’s relatives. And most especially she is keeping as much of her plans under wraps as possible in order to protect her late husband’s reputation, as well as her own.
The man seems to have been either an idiot or a fool. He concealed his indebtedness, and continued to spend much more money than he had. All Katherine has left is a few properties in York, a few trusted servants, and a ton of determination. Along with her husband’s two bastard children, who are beyond ungrateful that Kate has taken them in. Their parents are both dead, and no one else wants them. Kate didn’t either, not just because they are living proof that her husband was never faithful, but also because the addition of two more mouths to feed is intended to break her straining household.
Her husband’s will is a further betrayal. If she remarries, all of her property and business interests return to his greedy, grasping family. So his brother is determined to push her into capitulating by any underhanded means that he can find.
When one of her servants is injured in a runaway cart accident, it seems to be just bad luck. At least until a murder occurs in the house he would otherwise have been guarding. As it’s a house that Kate maintains in secret as a kind of medieval no-tell motel for the rich and unfaithful, Kate fears exposure of her profitable enterprise.
Instead, the cycle of death continues, and the run of deadly bad luck spirals outward to touch everything Kate owns and everyone she holds dear.
It all seems to be part of the growing unrest in the country, as King Richard II’s agents and Duke Henry of Bolingbroke’s proxies vie for the heart of the nobility, with the throne as the ultimate prize.
But the more Kate digs into the incidents, the more she feels the noose tightening around her own neck. Whatever is going on may be using political shenanigans as cover, but the true cause is buried in Kate’s own past.
Someone has unfinished business with Kate. But Kate is just as eager to settle her unfinished business with any and all of her enemies.
Escape Rating B+: The first half of this story moves a bit slowly. There is a lot of heavy lifting that the author has to get out of the way, and it takes a while for all the circumstances that have brought Kate Clifford to this time and place to be explained to the reader.
Unlike other time periods, there are no historical fiction shortcuts for this one. We all know the story of Richard I, his brother King John, and the way that Richard the Lion-Hearted left the rule of England to his rapacious younger brother while he was off fighting the Crusades, because that story is the background of the Robin Hood legend.
The period where Richard II and his favorites gives rise to the reign of Henry IV and the House of Lancaster is the beginning of what history called the Wars of the Roses. But most people are more familiar with the end of the those wars, where the recently rediscovered Richard III cried for a horse at the Battle of Bosworth Field and lost his crown and kingdom to the successful Tudor dynasty.
And while York is also the setting for the author’s marvelous Owen Archer historical mystery series, that period is now 25 years in York’s past. As much as I loved that series, it is sad to think that by the time of Katherine Clifford, Owen and Lucie are either retired or more likely dead.
So this is a new story set in a familiar city but in a different era. And Katherine, unlike many heroes and especially heroines, comes into this story fully adult and already set on her course. Her background was the making of her, and also sets the stage for the tragedy that ensues in this book. But it is a dense pattern that needs to be woven into the story at hand, as Katherine looks back and who she is and where she came from, and how those memories apply to the woman she has become. She is always cautious, always carefully, and generally surprisingly well armed for a woman in this period. It requires a lot of reflection during the story to discover how that came to be.
So what we have in The Service of the Dead is an absorbing mystery. It begins with a simple accident and ends with a surprise. Along the way Katherine is forced to reconsider all of her alliances and all of her enemies, because some who she assumed were one are in fact the other.
Katherine is an interesting heroine. She is on her own in a way that readers don’t think women were in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and yet must have happened. Her husband is dead. Most of her family is dead. She is on her own because there is no one else, and because she will not let there be anyone else. She prefers to rely on herself, because so many others have betrayed her, often in their attempts to protect her. She prefers to be in control.
The story is told entirely from Katherine’s perspective. We see what she sees and know what she knows. We also don’t know what she doesn’t know as the mess gets messier. The device where we learn the most about Katherine is a fascinating one. In the privacy of her own mind, Katherine believes that she is talking to her murdered twin brother. Whether she truly is or is merely debating within her own conscience is left up to the reader, as Geoff never reveals anything that Katherine does not already know.
What Katherine is ultimately fighting for is her right to choose her life. And the history is drawn carefully enough that as 21st century readers, we are able to empathize with her choice without feeling that she is outside of her time.