Ellis Peters' fifth Brother Cadfael mystery is set against a backdrop of one of the less savoury aspects of life in Mediaeval Europe - the scourge of leprosy and the terrible disfigurements and consequent social stigmas that its sufferers endured. In actuality, though, this is as typical a romance from the pen of Ellis Peters as it is possible to find!
The action of the story takes place just a few months after the previous Cadfael book, in the autumn of 1139. For once, the on-going civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud does not feature in the tale, which is concerned only with the impending marriage of a young, orphaned heiress to an overbearing and insufferable baron, many years her senior. It is quickly obvious that this marriage is no love-match, on either side, and has been arranged purely for the advancement of the girl's guardians and the bridegroom. It is also obvious from the outset that the would-be bride is more smitten with the squire of her affianced lord than with the baron himself and that this attraction is mutual. Most readers, too, will quickly come to dislike Huon de Domville as much as do the young lovers. Nor will anyone be surprised where suspicion (from everyone except Cadfael) falls when the bridegroom is rather conveniently found murdered on the very morn of his wedding day!
But that's about all that is clear-cut and obvious in this plot, which needs someone of Cadfael's shrewd and observant nature to tease out all of the complex pieces of the puzzle and fit them together correctly. And this is one of those classic Cadfael tales in which it is, indeed, only the good Brother (apart, of course, from the reader) who knows the whole truth of events by the end. As in the very first book, he remains quite content to leave the others with their own version of just who is guilty of what, aware that there are times when the justice of the Good Lord and that of Man might not always be in accord.
The book is written in Ellis Peters' inimitable prose style and paints her usual vivid picture of mediaeval life, both within the cloister and without. It has its humorous moments, not least of which is the testing of Cadfael's patience and faith by his keen but clumsy new acolyte, Brother Oswin. The book also provides us with new insights into some characters from earlier books, with Brother Mark mindful of a new calling amongst the sick and maimed of the lazarhouse, as well as introducing us to a new character who will be important in future books. As always, the author is to be congratulated on achieving an excellent balance between writing for readers new to the Cadfael series and for established fans working their way through the books in order. There should be much here to please those in the latter category without any risk of newcomers becoming confused.
The book does contain one of Ellis Peters' few technical mistakes, though, as she confuses the modern gardener's creeping gromwell (Lithodora diffusa) with one of its native relatives. In the times of this tale, creeping gromwell would have been quite unknown in Britain. It is, in any case, an acid loving plant and most definitely would not be found growing in the chalky ground in which Cadfael encounters it. Unfortunately, while its only blue-flowered native relative, the purple gromwell (Lithospermum purpuro-caeruleum) is indeed lime loving, that plant's flowering season is over by June and so it would not still been in bloom in October, the time of the good herbalist's investigations. This botanical mix-up need not greatly concern the reader, however. The compelling nature of Ms Peters' storytelling is sufficient to make such nit-picking details entirely unimportant.
Enjoy this book the way it was intended: as a good, solid, murder mystery and romantic novel, set in harsher times when, in many ways, life was a lot less complex than it is today.