Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Owen Archer #12
Published by Severn House on June 30, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster shortly before the enthronement of the new archbishop, Owen Archer is summoned to investigate.
December, 1374. With the great and the good about to descend on York for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as the new archbishop, the city authorities are in a state of high alert. When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster, and a flaxen-haired youth with the voice of an angel is found locked in the chapter house, Owen Archer, captain of the city bailiffs, is summoned to investigate. Tension deepens when an enigmatic figure from Owen's past arrives in the city. Why has he returned from France after all these years - and what is his connection with the bodies in the minster yard and the fair singer? Before Owen can make headway in the investigation, a third body is fished out of the river - and the captain finds himself with three mysterious deaths to solve before the all-powerful Neville family arrives in York.
By some reckonings, the events in A Choir of Crows take place during the “Little Ice Age”, the era in European history that spawned the sumptuous costumes that we associate with Renaissance Faires today. Because it was just so damn cold. You can practically hear the icy winds of December, 1374 whistling through this story.
The chill actually feels pretty good in this strange summer of 2020. It’s already hot down here.
But I came to this story not for its bracing weather, but because I got into a mood for historical fiction and mysteries, and this series always satisfies that particular itch.
Like the best of its kind, the Owen Archer series takes place during a time of great upheaval, and it mixes its search for whodunnit with insight into why it was done – or why it was covered up – and who is playing politics with whom and to what ends as Captain Owen Archer investigates a series of murders in his city while the worthies of the entire country descend upon York for the investiture of its new Archbishop.
Who is a much lesser man than the one he replaces. A man who is very much beholden to and under the heavy thumb of one of the most ambitious lords of the entire kingdom – his older brother, Sir John Neville, Baron of Raby. The Nevilles were one of the great families of Northern England, and they rose to become kingmakers during the Wars of the Roses.
This series is set at what will be the foundation of those Wars, as King Edward III is old and infirm, his oldest son and heir, The Black Prince, is young but struck down by disease, and the crown will become a prize in the squabbles between alternate heirs, sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons of Edward III in the mid-1400s.
But that is in the future. In the present, Owen Archer has a mess on his hands. Three men are dead. His assistant has discovered a young woman, disguised as a young man, at the site of two of the deaths. One might have been by misadventure but the other was certainly murder. The murdered man was a clergyman, he died within the precincts of York Minster, the Archbishop has not yet been invested in his throne – not that anyone believes he will know how to deal with this problem – unlike his predecessor.
There is a vacuum in authority, but a desperate need to put the entire situation behind them before the archbishop and his party – particularly his powerful brother – arrive on the scene to force a solution. One that suits them rather than any truth.
Owen is under pressure to solve the crimes and protect the young woman who seems to be at the heart of the mess while still being a victim of it. And to keep his family and friends safe from the power struggle yet to come.
Because Owen is not merely the Captain of the City Watch. He’s also The Black Prince’s right hand man in York – making the Nevilles his enemies – quite possibly of the deadly variety.
Escape Rating A: I absolutely adore this series, and reading this now instead of in a couple of weeks was definitely a case of the right book at the right time. After yesterday’s review, I really, really wanted to read this next – so I did.
But as much as I love this series, I’ll admit to having a difficult time figuring out where to recommend a newbie start it. Part of what I love is the way that the mystery dovetails into the history – and this is an era of history that I studied a bit and remember. So I’m riveted pretty much all of the time. I don’t think that would be true for someone who came into it cold, particularly not 12 books in.
Memory says that in the beginning the political situation was less complicated and less part of the story, that the focus was much more on the mystery and on the characters, as Owen arrives in York gets caught up in solving a murder, and is caught between hunting for a killer and fearing that the killer is the woman he has fallen in love with. So start at the beginning with The Apothecary Rose. If historical mystery is your cup of tea, it’s a great place to begin. (If the historical period in which this series takes place fascinates you, Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest is operating just a decade or so later, and the political mess has only become even more fraught in the interim.)
Back to A Choir of Crows. Yes, I know that the collective noun for crows is a murder, but that’s not what is being referred to by the title. Just FYI.
The story here does an excellent job of mixing the people with the politics. And in this instance I mean politics with a small “p” and not the large “P” of the national political upheaval going on at the time.
While Owen’s methods for solving crime may lack in 21st century forensics, the issues that he has to deal with are all too familiar. He has to solve the murders before the powers-that-be arrive and force a solution. We’ve all seen that in contemporary life and policing, where someone is railroaded into a confession so that everything can be swept under the carpet. Forensics may have advanced, but human nature hasn’t changed much at all – not even in seven centuries.
The young woman at the heart of this mystery is a victim every bit as much – actually as it turns out quite a bit more – than the man who was murdered. But she’s all too aware that even though none of what happened is in any way her fault, she’ll still be blamed for all of it merely because she is female. And that hasn’t changed much either.
However, as many things and issues as are wrapped around this case, at its heart is a good man determined to see justice served, protect his family, his friends and his city to the best of his ability, and to keep his word and his oaths. And that’s a story well worth reading, whether it takes place in this or any other era.
A few years ago, after the story in A Vigil of Spies, it felt like this series was coming to an end. While it would have been a fitting ending, I was pleased as Punch to see Owen return in A Conspiracy of Wolves. And I hope to see MANY further adventures in this well-written, thoroughly researched and utterly compelling series.