While Clark’s prior books in her 14th-century mystery series hves been historically accurate, Abbess Hildegard proves an effective sleuth with her knowledge of human behavior and forensics. The novels have focused on the dedicated Hildegard investigating nefarious plots in the political minefields of an England bedeviled by civil wars and secret agendas. A loyalist spy for her king at the behest of her superiors, the widowed Hildegard has found spiritual strength in accepting religious orders. A low-key romantic affection for Hubert de Courcy, the Abbot of Meaux, adds an undercurrent of sexual tension in a relationship constricted by vows of physical purity. Indulging in the pleasure of one another’s company, Hildegard and Hubert exist in a sort of medieval no-man’s land of unsatisfied cravings without fear of consummation, the ideal of chivalrous romantic love, but a theme that has threaded through each novel in the series.
Since the tease of the first novel in the series, when the attraction seemed about to spill over boundaries to assignation, the abbot has played but a shadow role, Hildegard’s assignments always more important than any personal concerns. So it would seem once more in A Parliament of Spies, as the abbess is required to join the retinue of Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, as all nobility are called to attend Richard II’s Parliament in a great showdown of York and Lancastrian forces. A threat to the king’s life is discovered, a plot among many that swirl around a court in turmoil, a French attack on London imminent, the mood of the city politically volatile and incendiary.
Before the archbishop’s caravan has even left, a murder taints an already worrisome trek through treacherous territory. This troubling omen is followed by more—a roadside ambush; an overheard seditious conversation; the archbishop’s dangerous secret; a brutal attack on a falconer—a series of unsettling disturbances that do not bode well for the event about to take place in London. Mired in the details of plots and counterplots, Hildegard assumes a familiar role. Here Clark breaks with expectations, plunging her protagonist into a more intimate terrain where her fine mind is of little assistance. Confronted with a nightmare in human form, Hildegard’s carefully constructed life is thrown into turmoil, the occasion of harm personal and specific as past collides with present and an unexpected rescue delivers Hildegard into the uncharted territory of awakened passion.
No longer the cerebral creature of only days before, Hildegard performs her duty as expected, enduring the unpalatable associations of political expedience as necessary for the cause. Even temporary successes pale beside the consequences of passion unleashed and unbridled affection celebrated in the midst of turmoil. Sadly, the degree of Hildegard’s joy is commensurate with the grief she suffers, everything leached of color as she seeks a time for healing. Clarks’ clever protagonist has become a fully-fleshed, intriguing character, her future in the hands of an assured author’s imagination. Can’t wait.