We all have to pay for our sins, and as all mortal beings seem to have a few of our own, it should come as no surprise that Brother Cadfael feels he must pay penance for his, as well. And in this 20th (and final) chronicle of Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters takes us a giant step forward in her characterization of the good Benedictine monk, a man once a member of the Crusades and now wrestling against sin behind the cloth.
In "Brother Cadfael's Penance," Peters permits Cadfael to come face to face with another aspect of his life--a time before his monastic vows. It is 1145 and the great civil war rages on between King Stephen and Empress Maud. However, there is hope. A meeting between the two factions is scheduled for Coventry and Brother Cadfael secures permission from the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury to attend. Known widely for his skills in diplomacy, as well as crime solving abilities, Cadfael, however, wishes to attend for a very personal reason. He is seeking news of a young knight, Olivier de Bretagne. Olivier is Cadfael's son, from his days fighting in the Holy Land as a crusader. His holy vows aside, he feels he must do all within his power to save his son.
Peters, as always, presents Cadfael as more than human--she gives us a man for all seasons, as it were. In addition, she presents the good brother in a realistic but incredibly humane manner. He is a man whom we can love, respect, yes, even
cherish. Peters' ability to draw out these characteristics is perhaps what makes the series so fascinating. Hers is a series not to be missed. One probably should read them in the order they were written; or at least, read earlier ones before this one, as the poignancy of the meeting between father and son is so much more dramatized when the reader has the background to appreciate such a climactic episode. I cannot imagine a reader being disappointed!