Cassandra Clark writes of complicated historical times with the subtlety demanded of a land embroiled in war, politics, plague and the growing pains of European politics and opportunistic politicians. In 1385, the Hundred Years War between England and France still rages. Two popes claim the authority of Rome, the Black Death has annihilated nearly half of Europe, young King Richard’s rule is threatened by those who would usurp power and claim the throne, and more religious controversy is sparked by Wycliffe’s Bible. In the midst of all this, Abbess Hildegard has established a small convent in rural Deepdale, far removed from the motherhouse or the Abbey of Meaux, hoping to prove such an enterprise sustainable.
But soon after the arrival of two young girls sent by the motherhouse, orphans Petronilla and Maud, a group of soldiers descends on Deepdale, destroying the grounds in their violent search for one of the girls: “Why would a group of armed men pursue with such venom the daughter of a bonded laborer?” Hildegard is forced to abandon her cherished mission, traveling to York for shelter with her two charges and a lay sister to await further instructions. York is abuzz with preparations for the upcoming feast of Corpus Christi, mobbed by visitors and troublemakers alike, Hildegard barely able to secure lodging - and that at an unfriendly convent.
Waiting for a courier to arrive from the motherhouse, Hildegard becomes embroiled in a local mystery that smacks of threat to the upcoming celebration, made a target because of the precious relic in her possession. She must protect the frightened Maud, who carries a terrible secret she is afraid to confide to any but her confessor. Old faces reappear in this novel: Ulf, Brother Thomas, and new ones both clever and malevolent, contributing to an atmosphere that reeks of danger on the eve of celebration. In her third outing, we expect Abbess Hildegard to survive the usual perils and near-misses and save the day. Business as usual, but couched in an elegant and thorough rendering of a tumultuous period of English history Clark unerringly describes.
Two things: the passionate attraction between Hildegard and Hubert de Courcy, Abbot of Meaux, in Hangman’s Blind, has been relegated to the sidelines in the last two novels (The Red Velvet Turnshoe and The Law of Angels). An integral part of Hildegard’s development and internal conflict in a religious organization, it is time to either bring
de Courcy back or do away with him, the tease become stale and unrewarding. The second issue I have is with Hildegard’s developing penchant for self-doubt (a familiar device in women’s fiction that allows a protagonist to justify stupid decisions by doubting her own intuition), perpetuating ill-conceived risks that of course deliver Hildegard into the hands of her enemies.
I want the old Hildegard back, the one who never dithers or doubts but takes appropriate action. Given Clark’s ability to navigate the dense politics of the era and allow her readers’ insight into the nature of life in 1385 York, I would hate to see Hildegard lose her secret affection for de Courcy or slip into insignificance. Looking forward to a reinvigorated Hildegard.