Bragg (A Time to Dance, 1991, etc.), an appealing, intelligent interviewer on cable's South Bank Show, author of well-received bios of Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton, of 13 novels, of screenplays, and a director of several musicals and plays, now finds time to turn out a giant historical set in Britain's Dark Ages. In A.D. 657, the scholarly and war-hungry British prince Padric and his student, the quasi-historical Irish priestess Begs (later Saint Bega), hope to battle the Northumbrians and restore the kingdom of Rheged, which had existed from before the Roman invasion. Ten years earlier, Donal, the lowliest of priests, had starved himself on a mountain and received from the Virgin a piece of the True Cross the size of his little finger, with instructions to pass this secret relic on to a girl-woman at the right moment. This happens to be Bega. Her father wants her to marry brutal rapist Prince Niall O'Neill and create an Irish dynasty. But O'Neill rapes Bega's servant, who in turn kills him, is herself beheaded, and Bega's father sends his daughter off to Rheged as Padric's wife. The two meet the monk Cuthbert, who is baptizing hundreds and establishing mixed houses of monks and nuns as mission posts. He separates Padric and Bega when he hears of the holy relic she carries--although Padric knows nothing of the relic. But Bega must be God's alone. For 50 years, Padric too becomes a soldier of God as the Word spreads throughout the isles, monasteries arise, four plagues come, dead Cuthbert fails to decay, and at last King Aldfrid brings art and education to the people. Serio-escapist fiction void of bodice-ripping, free of clichÃ¢s, clean-limbed in style: a rich and powerful plunge into the Dark Ages.