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 &

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 &

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.