At first glance, THE CANTERBURY PAPERS is slightly intimidating. It opens with a whirlwind two-page summary of twelfth-century French and English political history and then launches headfirst into the politics and betrayals of the royal Plantagenet family. Don't worry, though --- even if you flunked medieval history, there's still plenty to enjoy in this engaging suspense novel.
Alais Capet, a member of France's royal family, was, in her youth, betrothed to Richard the Lionheart. However, her engagement was mysteriously broken off, and now, years later, Alais is lonely, bored with French court life and tired of constantly bickering with her brother, the king of France. When Richard's aged mother, the legendary and powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, summons Alais to perform a mysterious errand at Canterbury Abbey, Alais jumps at the chance to have a bit of an adventure.
As Alais learns more about the letters she's been asked to retrieve from the altar, she is forced to examine some of the less savory parts of her own personal history. She herself admits, "God knows there were plenty of those [sins] strung out like dark pearls in the years behind me." Through flashbacks, readers learn about these old sins, gaining insight into family dynamics and Alais's own bitterness.
Alais also gets more of an adventure than what she bargained for, as she is quickly drawn into the personal and political intrigues of the Plantagenet family, particularly the tyrannical King John. As she conducts her mission, Alais begins to question everything about her assignment. What are Eleanor's true motives? Whom, if anyone, can Alais trust? And why is everyone so intrigued by the pendant that Alais wears around her neck?
From a historical figure who is usually little more than a footnote in history books, Judith Koll Healey has managed to create a flesh-and-blood woman with a vibrant personality. Although some sections, particularly those dealing with lengthy dinner conversations, can seem a bit too leisurely, and although it can be hard to keep all those nobles straight, Alais's tart tongue and the mystery story will keep readers guessing. Medieval history and literature buffs, of course, will eat this one up, as some of the most intriguing historical characters come to life in the pages of THE CANTERBURY PAPERS. For the rest of us, the author includes an afterword that helps sort out fact from fiction and provides some suggestions for further reading about the dysfunctional Plantagenet clan.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl