Review: The Riverwoman’s Dragon by Candace Robb

Review: The Riverwoman’s Dragon by Candace RobbThe Riverwoman's Dragon by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Owen Archer #13
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House on November 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

May, 1375. Owen Archer returns from London to find York in chaos. While the citizens are living in terror of the pestilence which is spreading throughout the land, a new physician has arrived, whipping up fear and suspicion against traditional healers and midwives. With the backing of the new archbishop, he is especially hostile towards Magda Digby, the wise woman who has helped and healed the people of York for many years. At the same time, Magda is uneasy about the arrival of two long-lost kinsfolk. Though they say they are seeking her help, she senses a hidden agenda.
Magda’s troubles deepen when she discovers a body in the river near her home – and finds herself under suspicion of murder. Days later, fire rips through a warehouse in the city. Amongst the charred debris lies the body of a man – not burned, but stabbed in the back. Could there be a connection to the corpse in the river?
Determined to prove Magda’s innocence, Owen sets out to find answers amidst violent outbursts within and without the city walls– but the more he uncovers, the deeper the mystery becomes …

My Review:

The past is another country, they do things differently there. Just because they DO things differently doesn’t mean that they ARE different. Human beings seem to be pretty much the same under the skin, no matter when or where they are born.

Warts and all, as the saying goes about whether an artist is willing to paint the truth instead of a pretty lie.

As this series has continued from its beginning in The Apothecary Rose, the political foment of the time and the mess it’s going to cause in Owen Archer’s very near future – meaning the Wars of the Roses that are just about to kick off. And there is some reference to events that are already in motion as this entry in the series begins.

But the burning heart – very nearly literally – of The Riverwoman’s Dragon is a witch hunt. So for this entry in the series the author has changed the point of view of the action from Owen Archer to the witch herself, the riverwoman Magda Digby.

And what a fascinating story it is!

Magda has been a part of the series from the very beginning. She is an elderly woman who lives on an island in the river Ouse, in a house that is either sheltered under or made up of or perhaps a bit of both, a wrecked boat whose dragon figurehead crowns the structure.

And possibly protects it.

Magda is one of the women who will be targeted by the actual witch hunts of the next few centuries. Not just because she’s old and lives alone, but because she’s a healer who uses herbs and roots and occasionally a few charms to mend her patients. She’s mysterious and a bit otherworldly and she serves the poor. She’s clearly not a member of the church, a church that fears what it does not control or understand, and women’s magic in general and Magda in particular are definitely things that the male-dominated church neither controls nor understands.

And the plague is coming. Again. Magda knows that when people are afraid, they lash out at anyone or anything perceived as “other” – and Magda is both.

So Magda is vulnerable, and someone has come to York to exploit that vulnerability. Not by a direct attack, but rather by spreading fear and uncertainty, through insidious whispers in dark corners, and through sermons preached by frightened and/or misogynistic clergy. Letting the whispers grow into a groundswell of terror and conspiracy theories, letting the frightened and disaffected do the actual dirty work of burning, looting and killing.

While the true evil hides in the shadows and bides his time, stirring the population of York into a frenzy, keeping Owen Archer busy protecting too many people on all sides, so that the evildoers can slip away and start over again in some other unsuspecting place.

Escape Rating A: Written during a real-life pandemic, this historical mystery is set during a real-life pandemic. Life imitates art imitates life in a kind of neverending spiral. But that’s human beings for you, all the way around.

The series as a whole, although it’s written in the third person, generally focuses its perspective and its action through Owen Archer. He’s the investigator of this historical mystery series and it’s his doings that bring the perpetrators to justice – or at least bring the reader to their catharsis.

But this is a story about the dangers that women face, their actions and their reactions, in a world where men hold all the power, so it’s fitting that the focus of this story switches from Owen to the healer Magda Digby. She, like Owen, is a protector, but because she is female, and does not kowtow at all to the church or to any man, she is an object of fear and suspicion, an easy target for men in power to use as a scapegoat when they need one. With the return of the plague, fear is running rampant among the populace, making a scapegoat for all of that fear an unfortunate necessity – at least from certain perspectives.

So a big part of what this story does is show just how easy it is for a few people to cast suspicion on anyone who is different. It’s also a story about desperate people clinging to anything that will drive their fears away or help them make more sense of something they rightfully fear, even if that sense is mistaken and goes against what they already know to be true.

Even if those in power are stoking their fears at the expense of people’s own self interest. A self-interest that they are already too frightened to come to grips with. And doesn’t all of that sound entirely too familiar?

So a huge part of this story is Magda Digby maneuvering around and/or outright ignoring the forces that are quite literally out to get her. She continues her self-appointed rounds, tending to the health of the people who live on the margins of her adopted city – even as some of them turn on her in fear and desperation.

Meanwhile, there is a series of crimes to be solved, even if not all of them are initially recognized as such. Because, again, the people attempting to raise the hue and cry are all women, and the perpetrators are men. Men who are in such positions that no other man can believe they might be villains – especially when all the accusers are “just women”.

This turned out to be a single-sitting read for me – minus the necessary ‘human breaks’. Magda has been a central character throughout the series, but always a mysterious one, as she would prefer. This is the first time we’ve seen a story mostly from her perspective, and it’s also the first time we’ve learned a bit about her past. She’s a character who straddles two worlds, the pagan or heathen societies that raised her and trained her versus the church-controlled city she lives on the edges of.

She’s a wisewoman who might just be a practitioner of real magic. Or might just be an old woman who has experienced a lot, shares the wisdom she has gathered in her long life, and just occasionally dreams that she is a dragon swimming in the river. That this particular question is never really answered feels like an integral part of her mystery.

And in the end, this one still manages to tie itself back into the long-simmering political crisis that is about to rear its ugly head, and to the events of the previous book in the series, A Choir of Crows. I enjoyed this entry in the series for the new insights it brought into a beloved character, its slightly different perspective on Owen Archer’s York, and for the way it echoed entirely too many 21st century crises by reflecting them into a past in which they fit just as well as they do today.

Review: A Choir of Crows by Candace Robb

Review: A Choir of Crows by Candace RobbA Choir of Crows (Owen Archer, #12) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Owen Archer #12
Pages: 288
Published by Severn House on June 30, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


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.

My Review:

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.

Review: A Conspiracy of Wolves by Candace Robb

Review: A Conspiracy of Wolves by Candace RobbA Conspiracy of Wolves (Owen Archer #11) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Owen Archer #11
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House Publishers on August 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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.

My Review:

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.

Review: A Twisted Vengeance by Candace Robb

Review: A Twisted Vengeance by Candace RobbA Twisted Vengeance (Kate Clifford #2) by Candace Robb
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Kate Clifford #2
Pages: 400
on May 9th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

1399. York is preparing for civil war, teeming with knights and their armed retainers summoned for the city’s defense. Henry of Lancaster is rumored to have landed on the northeast coast of England, not so far from York, intent on reclaiming his inheritance—an inheritance which his cousin, King Richard, has declared forfeit.
With the city unsettled and rife with rumors, Eleanor Clifford’s abrupt return to York upon the mysterious death of her husband in Strasbourg is met with suspicion in the city. Her daughter Kate is determined to keep her distance, but it will not be easy—Eleanor has settled next door with the intention of establishing a house of beguines, or poor sisters. When one of the beguines is set upon in the night by an intruder, Kate knows that for the sake of her own reputation and the safety of her young wards she must investigate.
From the first, Eleanor is clearly frightened yet maintains a stubborn silence. The brutal murder of one of Eleanor’s servants leads Kate to suspect that her mother’s troubles have followed her from Strasbourg. Is she secretly involved in the political upheaval? When one of her wards is frightened by a too-curious stranger, Kate is desperate to draw her mother out of her silence before tragedy strikes her own household.

My Review:

In yesterday’s review, I noted that one of the things that historical mysteries often have in common is that they are set in times of great political upheaval. And so it proves with A Twisted Vengeance, the second book in Candace Robb’s Kate Clifford series, after last year’s The Service of the Dead.

Kate Clifford, the protagonist and amateur detective of this series, lives in York, England in 1399, a time when England was again on the cusp of civil war. (While England has only had one conflict officially called the English Civil War, it has had lots of civil wars that were named something else.) In 1399, what Kate and her city are experiencing is part of the long run up to the Wars of the Roses, which may have “officially” begun in 1455 but had their roots in much earlier conflicts.

At this particular point in the century-long mess, Richard II, unbeknownst to all the characters in this particular story, is about to be deposed by his cousin, the Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke, crowned as Henry IV. While the deposing, and later beheading, hasn’t happened at this point in Kate’s story, the conflict between Richard and Henry is in full swing, with nobles and their knights scurrying for position on both sides, or sometimes, as in yesterday’s book, attempting to straddle the increasingly mushy middle.

York, as the second city in England and the unofficial capital of the North, is a prize coveted by both factions. As our story begins, both factions have sent knights, spies and seemingly unaffiliated with surprisingly well-armed men to camp in and around York, in hopes of glorious battle and rich plunder.

And all of them are spoiling for a fight.

Kate, on the other hand, is trying to keep her head down, manage her properties, and get out from under the onerous weight of her late husband’s massive debts and away from the grasping machinations of his family. Her initial efforts in this regard form the backdrop of The Service of the Dead. Her late husband being the dead in that instance, and no one seems to lament the bastard. Not even his bastards.

But Kate’s hopes for peace are immediately dashed in this story, when someone attacks the house next door. Unfortunately for Kate, her mother has moved into that house. And whatever Dame Eleanor’s ostensible reasons for her move to open a lay religious house on Kate’s doorstep, Kate knows that her mother always has layers under layers of motivations, and that somehow Kate will end up picking up the pieces while enduring streams of her mother’s verbal abuse.

Dame Eleanor has a dangerous secret. And just like all of Eleanor’s secrets, it is going to get someone killed. And, also as usual, that secret is going to do it and Eleanor’s damn level best to drag Kate under with it.

Escape Rating A-: A Twisted Vengeance grabbed me from the very first page, and didn’t let go until around midnight, when I turned the last page and heaved a sigh of relief. No one escapes from this one unscathed, and danger piles upon danger (also secret piles upon secret), from the first to the last. But our heroine and her fascinating and motley household do live to fight (and investigate) another day.

One of the reasons that A Twisted Vengeance was able to do that first-page grab was because all of the setup had already been handled in The Service of the Dead. That first book has a rather slow beginning, because the richness of this historical setting, and the circumstances of Kate’s rather singular position in it, take a while to take hold. The investment of time in reading the first book, definitely pays off here in the second.

In the end of this outing, the army leaves, and all is finally revealed, not necessarily in that order. That army, and all of its plotting and scheming, are in many ways a giant (and very stinky) red herring, confusing all the issues and providing too many places for too many villains to hide in plain sight.

When all is said and done, and there’s a lot of both, this is a story about family. Both writ large, as the family squabbles and family conflicts are a huge part of the political landscape, and as the great lords use the conflict as an excuse to enact their petty (and not so petty) revenges.

But also writ small, in the neverending conflict between Kate and her mother Eleanor. Where the political shenanigans can sometimes get very large and seem very arcane, the little war between Kate and Eleanor is easy to understand and sympathize with. It will remind every woman who has ever had issues with her own mother (and the number of women who have never had such issues is vanishingly small). The yawning gap between mothers and their grown daughters is a chasm filled with childhood resentments and parental admonishments.

In 21st century terms, parents have such an easy time pushing our buttons because they are the ones who installed them.

Kate doesn’t trust Eleanor because Eleanor keeps secrets, as she is in this instance. And while much of their conflict lies in the past and in patterns neither of them seems able to change, the fact is that Eleanor’s secrets have gotten people killed in the past, and Kate is right to both worry and be mistrustful.

A Twisted Vengeance, like The Service of the Dead and the author’s absolutely marvelous Owen Archer series, is a historical mystery for those who love a rich, detailed slice of history served up with their engrossing mystery. If that’s you, Kate Clifford is a heroine to follow.

Review: The Service of the Dead by Candace Robb

Review: The Service of the Dead by Candace RobbThe Service of the Dead (Kate Clifford #1) by Candace Robb
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Series: Kate Clifford #1
Pages: 352
Published by Pegasus on May 3rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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.

My Review:

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.

Review: A Vigil of Spies by Candace Robb + Giveaway

Review: A Vigil of Spies by Candace Robb + GiveawayA Vigil of Spies (Owen Archer, #10) by Candace Robb
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Owen Archer #10
Pages: 286
Published by Diversion Books on July 26th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A callous murder. A devastating secret. A crime of passion.
York, 1373: John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York, lies dying. Owen Archer, Thoresby's master of the guards, is determined to ensure that his lord's last days are as peaceful as possible, but his plans are thrown into disarray when Thoresby agrees to a visit from Joan, Princess of Wales, wife of the Black Prince and mother of the young heir to the throne of England.
Owen resolves to do his duty, but within minutes of Joan's arrival things go disastrously wrong when a member of the royal party is murdered. Then, only days later, a messenger carrying urgent letters for Thoresby is found hanging in the woods. As Owen races against time to find the murderer, he starts to realise that not only has one of his own men been compromised, but all their lives are now in danger...

The King is dead. Long live the King.

guilt of innocents by candace robbThe story in this 10th book in the Owen Archer series takes place at Bishopthorpe, the Archbishop of York’s residence, at the time of the very real death of John de Thoresby, Archbishop of York, in 1373. The events in this book follow closely upon the events in the previous book in the series, The Guilt of Innocents, reviewed here.

In this fictional world, Thoresby is the employer and patron of Owen Archer and his family. Owen is the Captain of Thoresby’s guard, so the death of his patron will bring about major changes in Owen’s life. And in spite of their sometimes contentious relationship over the past ten years, as the old man’s death approaches, Owen is forced to confront his own feelings. He finds that now that the old man is passing, he likes and respects the man, and will mourn his loss.

He is also forced to confront the inevitable changes that the uncertain future will bring.

In the midst of Thoresby’s death watch, the author has interjected another historical figure who is looking at the future without Thoresby’s strength and influence with a great deal of justifiable trepidation.

Joan, known to history as the Fair Maid of Kent, has come to the Archbishop’s deathbed to seek his sound advice one last time. And she certainly needs it. Joan was the Princess of Wales, but Princess to Edward, the Black Prince who is dying. Her father-in-law, King Edward III, is also dying. She is all too aware of the likelihood that her young son Richard will become King when he is much too young to rule without a regency council. Child Kings do not thrive in medieval history. They tend to either become pawns, despots, or dead.

In 1373 Joan has no idea that her son, who will become Richard II, will turn out to be all three.

In this atmosphere of impending death lies the beginning of what history will sometimes call “The Cousins War”, but that we know better as the Wars of the Roses. The men that Joan is forced to choose among for her son’s regency will become the leaders of the Lancaster and York factions that rise in the wake of her son’s eventual death. England will not be at peace again for over a century, until Richard III is killed at Bosworth Field in 1485.

But all Joan knows in 1373 is that one of the few men she would have trusted to care for her son and his future crown will die before him. In the story, she comes to York to seek his advice one last time.

While she gets the advice she seeks, she brings chaos in her wake. And in this moment of shifting loyalties and fears for the future, her baggage train conceals a murderer. It becomes Owen’s job to find the killer, guard the Princess, and provide as much peace as possible for the dying man who has goaded and aided him in equal measure for so many years.

Escape Rating A+: While I’ve given a lot of weight to the historical situation in my summary, it sets the stage for what is actually a sort of country house mystery, albeit one set about five or six centuries before Agatha Christie made such stories famous.

The death watch for Thoresby creates an absolute hothouse atmosphere for murder, although the first murder takes place just before Princess Joan’s party arrives at the Archbishop’s. The stage is set with all too many people having all too many plausible, and sometimes urgent, reasons for killing someone else in either the party or at the house. The Archbishopric of York was a rich secular prize, as well as being the second highest office of the Church in England. Plenty of people are vying for the about-to-be-vacant see.

This is all about power, and by that I mean earthly power and not spiritual power. The great families of the North, the Percies and the Nevilles, want to be sure that the see goes to someone who aligns with their interests. In fact, to one of the Nevilles. Much of this jockeying is about the power vacuum that is about to occur on the throne, and who will be in the best position to influence the expected very young king in the days to come.

Many of Owen’s men, men who he believed were loyal to the Archbishop and most especially to himself, are vulnerable to promises of future employment. Their collective future is in doubt, and some are particularly susceptible to bribery of one kind or another.

Joan does not know all the various members of her party. Someone has been searching the Archbishop’s room, looking for either trinkets or information to blackmail someone with.

As the bodies and incidents start piling up, Owen puts the entire place on lockdown, wanting to be sure that his murderer remains on the premises while he tries to ferret them out. At the same time, Owen is distracted – he doesn’t know who he can trust, and his wife and her sage counsel are out of reach in the city.

We see all these characters at a crossroads. The future, both their personal futures and the future of the country, is uncertain. Loyalties that were firm have become fluid. And yet Owen still must do his job, finding out who is disturbing the Archbishop’s waning days and whether they might intend harm to the Princess. His job often feels impossible, and yet he knows that he will miss it, the responsibility and status it gives him, and the man who has been at the center of it all.

We feel Owen’s grief, and we see and sympathize with his confusion. His story has been marvelous from beginning to end, following a fascinating character and watching as his world changes and he changes with it. The author has never fallen into the trap of making Owen or Lucie anachronistic in order to make them fit our sensibilities, and they are all the more interesting for providing us an insight into their times and their world.

I will miss them, and I hope that the author returns to this series. The changes that are coming will be monumental and I’d love to see how they adapt.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

As part of this tour, Candace and Diversion Books are giving away three copies of sets of the first three books (The Apothecary Rose, The Lady Chapel and The Nun’s Tale) in this marvelous historical mystery series:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Guilt of Innocents by Candace Robb

Review: The Guilt of Innocents by Candace RobbThe Guilt of Innocents (Owen Archer, #9) by Candace Robb
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback
Series: Owen Archer #9
Pages: 304
Published by Diversion Books on July 26, 2015 (Originally 2007 by Random House)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Winter in the year of our Lord 1372. A river pilot falls into the icy waters of the River Ouse during a skirmish between dockworkers and the boys of the minster school, which include Owen Archer’s adopted son Jasper. But what began as a confrontation to return a boy’s stolen scrip becomes a murder investigation as the rescuers find the pilot dying of wounds inflicted before his plunge into the river. When another body is fished from the river upstream and Owen discovers that the boy Jasper sought to help has disappeared, Owen Archer convinces the archbishop that he must go in search of the boy. His lost scrip seems to hold the key to the double tragedy, but his disappearance leaves troubling questions: did he flee in fear? Or was he abducted?
On the cusp of this new mystery, Owen accepts Jasper’s offer to accompany him to the boy’s home in the countryside, where they learn that a valuable cross has gone missing. A devastating fire and another drowning force Owen to make impossible choices, endangering not only himself, but the two innocents he fights to protect. The bond between fathers and sons proves strong, even between those not linked by blood.

The Guilt of Innocents is the 9th story in the Owen Archer historical mystery series. I read at least the first five books in this series sometime in the way back, and absolutely loved them. But somewhere along the way I stopped, a casualty of the “so many books, so little time” problem. Although now that I have dived back into this marvelous series, I have some very sincere regrets at having missed some of the middle books.

If you love historical mystery, this series is awesome.

The setting and setup are fascinating. The stories take place in York, England in the 1360s and 1370s. Like all of the best historical fiction, the time period used is one of great foment. England was fighting France in an attempt to retake Aquitaine and the other parts of that country that had been part of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s dowry two centuries before. England had lost almost all of their bits of France during the reign of her son John “Lackland”, better known to history and literature as John I, the evil king in Robin Hood and the signer of the Magna Carta.

Those lands were long lost, but it took the English monarchy a few more centuries to finally get the point. Meanwhile, there were wars. Lots and lots of wars.

West front of York Minster
West front of York Minster

In York, the “capital” of the North, its beautiful centerpiece, the York Minster, was still in the process of being built in this period. Parts of it were completed, but it was still a work in progress. England and the rest of Europe were still Catholic countries at this point, but there were stirrings of what would become the Protestant movement.

In the middle of all this change, we have Owen Archer. Owen began his career as a Welsh archer, and served notably in France until he lost the sight in one eye in a skirmish. Owen learned to read and write, and reinvented himself as an agent for the crown, and eventually for John Thoresby, Archbishop of York and former Lord Chancellor of England. Owen comes to York to investigate a series of murders in The Apothecary Rose, and falls in love with the subject of his enquiries, a young widow named Lucie Winton. As happens in all the best romantic suspense series, Owen manages to clear Lucie’s name and eventually marries her.

However, unlike most women in her time, Lucie is not a woman who stays at home and tends to her household. Lucie is a master apothecary in her own right, and is able to contribute much to Owen’s investigations.

But not as much to this particular case as Lucie would like. During the course of this book, Lucie is vastly pregnant, and Owen makes himself conduct more of the case without Lucie’s assistance than he would like. Or possibly also than is good for their marriage. In his desire to protect Lucie, Owen is cutting her off from the most important aspect of his life, and it troubles them both.

The case itself is very loosely based on a real incident, although the problems that arise from that incident are fictional in this book.

A man is sliced with a poisoned knife. Before he dies, he returns to his coworkers, the river bargemen who work for the Abbey. His death is mixed up in a bit of town/gown horseplay between the boys at the Minster school and the bargemen, each generally trying to lord it over the other.

From this inauspicious beginning, along with the story of a missing boy and his equally missing trinket, a long sad tale of theft, murder and false accusation winds its way through York and the surrounding countryside.

One man may be killed for a crime he did not commit, in order to satisfy those who are certain that because he is not pure of thought, he must be guilty of every possible crime. And one extremely clever and guilty man nearly goes free, because Owen almost isn’t able to fit the pieces together in time.

Escape Rating A: While I think it might make the story even richer if one has read at least some of the preceding books in the series, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. I’m sure it’s been at least a decade since I read the early books, and I got well into the story almost instantly. The author does a good job of recapping prior events for those who weren’t there for them.

One of the things about this series that fascinates this reader is the way that it evokes the city of York. Much of the inner city of York, the part within the walls, has been preserved as a tourist attraction. I distinctly remember reading one of the books in this series while I was in York, and many of the places are still there, particularly the gates and of course the Minster. It was uncanny to walk the same steps as Owen and Lucie and believe that I was seeing some of what they would have seen.

The story itself does an excellent job of using the skills and people that existed, and does not try to wrench much out of shape to fit 20th or 21st century sensibilities. Women like Lucie did become masters in some professions, and were sometimes permitted to operate businesses as widows. Being an apothecary would make her an excellent resource for Owen when it came to researching poisons and illnesses.

But at the same time Lucie is still a woman who was subject to all of the disabilities of being a woman in a time when dying in childbirth was the most common cause of death among women of childbearing age. She is eight months pregnant, she lost a child through miscarriage the previous year, she is ready to have this baby and she is very afraid, all at once. At the same time, she still has a business to run, apprentices to train and three children to raise.

The case Owen investigates allows 21st century readers to get a glimpse of just how important the Church was in Medieval life, and how the princes of that church were all too often worldly princes as well. While the motives behind the real killer turn out to be very much of this world, and downright mercenary ones at that, the motives of those who are bandying about those false accusations have way more to do with manipulating the church and people’s religious beliefs for their own opportunistic ends.

apothecary rose by candace robbOwen makes an interesting and effective investigator. While he moves within all of these worlds, he is not a part of any of them. He is a soldier, but he works for the church. His wife is a respected master in the city, but he is not a member of any of the craft guilds. For a one-eyed man, he sees very clearly indeed. And because he is not partial to any of the groups involved, he is able to trace a clear path to the real killer without being blinded by shared interests or family ties.

If you love historical mystery, this series is a real treat. My prescription would be to start with The Apothecary Rose, and enjoy your trip to Medieval England. I know I did.

Reviewer’s Note: Although this review is not officially part of the tour, TLC Book Tours is currently touring the entire Owen Archer series. My review of A Vigil of Spies will be part of the tour next Monday, but if you are looking for more reviews of the series, just follow the link in the TLC Logo.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.