Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Bianca Goddard #5
Published by Red Puddle Print on April 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Set in the final years of King Henry VIII's reign, an alchemist's daughter uses her skills to aid the living and helps seek justice for the dead...
While her husband fights the Scots on behalf of King Henry VIII, Bianca Goddard earns her coin by concocting medicines that offer relief to London's sick. Some unfortunates, however, are beyond any remedies she can provide—like the young boy discovered hanging from a church dripstone. Examining the body, Bianca finds a rosary twined around the child's neck. A week later, another boy is found dead at a different church. When Bianca's impish acquaintance, Fisk, goes missing, she fears he may become the third victim...
There are many villains who would prey on wayward, penniless boys. But Bianca suspects the killings are not brutal acts of impulse, but something far more calculated. In her room of Medicinals and Physickes, she examines the sole piece of evidence: a sweet-smelling, stained cloth. If Bianca can unravel its secret, reputations and lives will be saved. The expected hour of the next murder is approaching, and a single misstep may mean another boy is lost forever...
From that first scene, where the running boy barely manages to step over a steaming turd, you know that this is one of those marvelous works of historical fiction where you’re going to walk the streets at the side of the characters and feel the cobbles beneath your own shoes.
Not to mention breathe the same air and smell the same smells. Maybe it’s better not to go into too many details about the smells, at least not around mealtime.
This series takes place at one of the crossroads of English history, a time when there was ferment both politically and ideologically, a time when the world was changing but the impact of those changes was still in process. And like all times of great change, there were forces dead set on maintaining their power and the status quo, just as they were those who were agitating for the changes to come. And both sides used violence to make their point, with bloody results no matter who won.
Set at the sunset of the reign of Henry VIII, the focus of this entry in the series is split between Bianca in London and her husband John, who was conscripted into the army at the end of the previous book, The Alchemist of Lost Souls. John is in Scotland, just one of the many footsoldiers participating in King Henry’s “Rough Wooing” of the Scots, and learning the lesson that transcends time and place and applies to all wars, that war is hell, and that entirely too many of the men fighting it release their inner devils for the purpose.
Bianca has no idea where John is or how he is, all she knows is that he is gone and that she has been left to make the best living she can as a “white witch” dispensing medicinal herbs and tinctures, and to occupy herself as best she can by aiding the local constable with his inquiries. Meaning that Constable Patch has the authority, Bianca has the brains, and the Constable gets all the credit for her solutions.
Patch has called Bianca in to solve a terrible crime – one made even more terrible by its repetition. Someone is killing young boys and stringing them up from church gargoyles. It’s ugly and gruesome in every possible way. But it doesn’t make sense.
It’s unclear whether someone is targeting the churches, drawing attention to the inconstancy of their beliefs and practices as they are caught in the King’s religious caprices, or whether someone is trying to discredit the church as a whole in order to bring about more reform. In either these scenarios, the boys are part of the show and not its purpose.
Or is someone poking into the gangs of thieving boys in an attempt to uncover their masters? Or is it another possibility all together?
Caught between feuding constables, infighting clergymen and searching for the lost boys, Bianca is uncertain of which way to turn. She only knows that she has to get to the root of these crimes before more are sacrificed.
Escape Rating A-: This is apparently the final book in this series, and if that’s true I’m very sorry to see it end. Bianca Goddard is a fascinating heroine in so many ways. It’s not just her intelligence and her agency, although it is marvelous to read a historical mystery with a female protagonist who is neither noble nor a member of the upper classes. Bianca’s story portrays life among the groundlings, in its all too frequent nastiness, dirtiness and brevity. Her vocation is to do her best to ease the suffering around her.
At the same time, she is human in a way that is easy for 21st century readers to identify with. She’s smart, both too smart and too observant for her own good. She gets obsessive and absorbed in her work, has little patience for either small talk or fools. Her husband doesn’t try to keep her home or protect her from it. Both because he’s easy-going and because they can’t afford for her not to work every bit as hard as he does.
He does worry about her work investigating crime, and somebody should be worried. She sticks her nose and herself into places that are dangerous, and that danger all too often reaches out to grab her.
The stories in this series do an excellent job of portraying Bianca’s world, not just her personal circumstances, but the way that the doings of the high and mighty reach down and affect the lives of every person in the kingdom. Bianca is intelligent enough that when things happen, she doesn’t just know what, but she understands the why and the how of it, and so do we, even in circumstances that seem far removed from our own.
I like Bianca and I’m going to miss her. If you enjoy gritty historical mystery and want more, in addition to Bianca’s series (start with The Alchemist’s Daughter) there’s also Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series, Candace Robb’s Owen Archer and Kate Clifford serieses and D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles in very similar veins.
One final note. Bianca has a cat named Hobs. As is usual for cats, it would be more accurate to say that Hobs has her. Due to a bit of magical realism in the previous books in the series, Bianca believes that Hobs is immortal, and the events of this book prove her correct. I want a cat like Hobs. Actually, I want all my cats to be like Hobs. Desperately. If this particular character in the story includes a bit of wish fulfillment on the part of the author, I understand completely.