The fourth Cadfael chronicle, published in 1981, takes place from July into August 1139. Cadfael is now fifty-nine years old and growing poppies in the monastery garden. He's been a monk for sixteen years and - given his life before and after joining the cloister - "he was virtually out of reach of surprise." Perhaps the poppies helped!
This time in the previous year, the town of Shrewsbury was under siege by King Stephen's forces. The new abbot refuses the town's request for financial assistance in helping it rebuild its community by donating part of the profits that the abbey would accrue from its annual fair. Whilst Hugh Beringar tells Cadfael that, "The word in the town is that this may be law, but it is not justice", the stage is set for some boisterous goings-on during the fair.
Ellis Peters took a different approach to the structure of this instalment by placing the chapters within sections headed `The Eve of the Fair', `The First Day of the Fair', `The Second Day of the Fair', `The Third Day of the Fair', and `After the Fair'. This provides a good structure for the reader as he or she follows events as each day unfolds. And come the end, we can see how what appeared at first as a purely local mystery, actually had implications in the politics of the nation. As Cadfael remarks, "Where there are two warring factions in a land ... men without scruples can turn controversy to gain."
I do not want to give the game away for those who have not read this book, but for those who have, I feel I should mention that Peters's logic seems false at the story's end: if Emma really wanted "to keep the wives unwidowed and the children still fathered" in the struggle between Stephen and Matilda, then with hindsight it would have been better to have handed over what her captor desired. I'm not sure either that the chimneys and solars as described would have been found in the Welsh Marches of the twelfth century.
But these are minor quibbles. This instalment in the series is as enjoyable as any other.