Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Owen Archer #11
Published by Severn House Publishers on August 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
1374. When a member of one of York’s most prominent families is found dead in the woods, his throat torn out, rumours spread like wildfire that wolves are running loose throughout the city. Persuaded to investigate by the victim’s father, Owen Archer is convinced that a human killer is responsible. But before he can gather sufficient evidence to prove his case, a second body is discovered, stabbed to death. Is there a connection? What secrets are contained within the victim’s household? And what does apprentice healer Alisoun know that she’s not telling? Teaming up with Geoffrey Chaucer, who is in York on a secret mission on behalf of Prince Edward, Owen’s enquiries will draw him headlong into a deadly conspiracy.
When I reviewed the previous book in the Owen Archer series, A Vigil of Spies, nearly four years ago, it read as an ending to the series. I wasn’t certain that it was the ending, but it felt very much like it was. Owen’s patron, mentor and employer, John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York, lies dying throughout the story, only to pass, as he did in history, late in the year 1373.
The story felt like it was closing down. Owen Archer seemed to have finished his metamorphosis from the slightly lost and somewhat resentful ex-soldier that he was at the very beginning of the series in The Apothecary Rose, becoming a trusted agent for Thoresby and protector of the city of York, as well as an experienced investigator and a loving and fulfilled family man.
But Owen is just into middle age, made comfortably well-off by Thoresby’s final bequests and actions, but not nearly ready to settle into a life of leisure – or even a life of merely managing his estates.
As A Conspiracy of Wolves opens, Owen in on his way back to York after a visit to those estates, and pondering his options. Options that seem to be in conflict, a conflict that is pointed out rather insistently when Owen is asked to investigate a murder that seems to have been caused by rampaging wolves.
It’s up to Owen to determine whether those wolves have four legs or two, before hysteria grips the entire city.
The case is murky, and so is Owen’s future. He has to figure out the motive for what becomes a series of murders and attempts at it before he can determine who is behind it all. While at every turn he feels caught between his duty to the city and the request, to be read as an order, that he has received from Court.
He wants to stay in York, but he also wants the access to information and authority that comes with serving the crown. But if he doesn’t solve these grisly murders, neither will want his service – nor could he live with himself.
Escape Rating B: The Owen Archer series is an absolutely terrific historical mystery series. Owen, and his wife Lucie the apothecary, change and grow over the course of their adventures, and the author does an excellent job of exploring the world of 14th century York and the swirl of politics that surrounds the capital of the North. This is certainly a series that deepens as it goes, and will reward readers who start at the beginning. After all, Owen comes to York in The Apothecary Rose to investigate Lucie as a possible murderer. It’s fun to see how they go from mutual suspicion to domestic partnership!
But, as much as I loved this series, I had a difficult time getting into this particular entry. I was very happy to be back in York with these characters, but the beginning of the story felt as murky as Owen’s personal decision making-process.
At the beginning, Owen doesn’t know where he’s going, he doubts what he is doing, and so do we. That the case he’s working on is a confused mess doesn’t help either him or us.
In the 14th century that Owen operates in, forensic science is pretty much non-existent as we know it. He’s forced to rely on observations, his own and other people’s. And while Owen may see clearer than most in spite of the loss of one of his eyes before the series opened, he still only knows what is seen and heard. The body he investigates was meant to appear as though the victim had died from being mauled by a wolf, but he is willing to look deeper – and it doesn’t take much observation – as long as it is detached – to see that under the horrific teeth and claw marks there’s a long, clean gash – the kind made by a sharp knife. Wolves don’t carry knives.
So someone wants it to look like a wolf attacked and wants to get everyone stirred up and suspicious. But of whom – and for what? Owen begins the case with no clue of what and why, only a body.
It takes him a long time – relatively – to learn what this is really all about. Plenty of time and effort for him to doubt himself – even if others do not. And equally plenty of time for pressure to be applied from all sides – to solve the case, and to decide his own fate.
I think that part of my struggle with the story was that I missed the political angles – as does Owen. He misses the authority he used to have, not because he wants power over people, but because it cut through a whole lot of corners. He often feels stymied in his investigation by needing to find allies or seek permission – something he has long lost his taste for.
Once the pieces of the case come together – basically once enough people have died or been attacked that they all stop lying and prevaricating, the conclusion arrives in a flurry of action – and pages.
At the end, Owen does find a way to convince both of his potential masters that they are better off working together through him rather than fighting over his possible service. And his service to the Crown will put him into the thick of the machinations that surrounded the deaths of the Black Prince and Edward III, deaths that set up the decades-long succession fight yet to come. A fight that history has come to call the Wars of the Roses.
This will be grand. Also bloody and messy. But definitely grand.