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Read this first, Spoilers in other reviews
on 10 October 2014
Three reasons for this review. Firstly, despite the medieval setting, this novel is basically a traditional whodunnit and, if you're thinking of buying it then may I advise extreme caution with regards reading other reviews beforehand. Some of them contain colossal spoilers without a word of warning and will ruin the story for you. Others try to be more careful but many of them still tell a lot more than you might want. Just a friendly word of advice.
Secondly, I would suggest that, if you're going to read a Cadfael novel or two (and you could do a lot worse) then read this one first, which is the series opener. I'm not being OCD here, but if you read any of the subsequent novels before this one then the simple presence - or absence - in the later books of one or two of the characters in "A Morbid Taste..." might give away more than you'd like.
Thirdly, whilst I liked this novel, and look forward to reading maybe a few more in the series, I wouldn't buy an expensive, complete boxed set. In case you're thinking of doing this yourself, perhaps based on your enjoyment of the TV series, I'd like to add a more modest praise to the large number of glowing 5 star reviews. and suggest that you may want to read this first to see how you get on with it.
I enjoyed this novel, although I'd describe it as good rather than brilliant. On the plus side it's refreshingly different and enjoyably readable, (although a little judicial editing would tighten the narrative without any loss), and I give the author special praise for the convincingly drawn characters. This requires a particular writing skill which not all authors posess, even otherwise good ones, and Peters brings her people to life with deceptive ease and minimal description. Well done.
Perhaps not quite as convincing are a few aspects of the storyline itself, but I think most readers are happy to sacrifice absolute plausibility on the altar of entertainment, and for the most part I was quite willing to suspend disbelief here and there.
Another plus is the way the author gives us a feel of life in medieval times with just enough period details to inform the reader, rather than bore us by showing off her research. In fact I wouldn't have minded a bit more historical education along the way, but I suppose that's what history books are for.
So far so good, and as I say, I did like this novel, but not unconditionally. Whilst the characters themselves come across as well rounded and believable, their dialogue sometimes idoesn't. Much of it is well written and convincing enough, but for me it frequently lacks the ring of credibility and worse, can be gratingly expositional. To give just one example is when one character loses control of their temper, with dire consequences. Lest the reader should wonder why this individual just happened to be in that place at that time, and why he (or she, no spoilers!) acted the way they did, Peters has Cadfael admonish the hothead with " A pity I ever suggested that **** should call you in to wait in reserve, in case we had trouble.." It's a device the author uses frequently throughout the book and I for one could gladly have done with less of it. Too many plot points or events are over-explained, often rather clumsily, and several times I wanted to shout "OK, we get it!"
Other minor irritations for me are the way in which overlookable implausibilty sometimes crosses the line into outright contrivance, and how Cadfael's conclusions and deductions are sometimes arrived at without a shred of logic, and plainly to facillitate the author's constuction . Can't really give examples (spoilers) but I'm sure many other readers will realize what I mean. Not a crime against literature by any means, but I couldn't help feeling that these sacrifices of credibility for conveniece would have been unnecessary if the author had just thought it through a bit better.
And finally I wasn't too keen on the ending. Not that's it's unimaginative or inconclusive, but again, just a bit too contrived and 'pat', and there is at least one rather obvious discrepancy which requires an effort of will (or simply an adoration of the novel) to overlook. An enjoyable read, and I'll certainly read at least one or two more Cadfael novels, but I can't agree that this first in the series is quite the literary masterpiece that others seem to think it.