What are frustrated Queen Mother Eleanor and concerned merchants to do about King Richard the Lionheart, who has abandoned his duties and in effect absconded with England’s wealth to support his crusading? The pervasive gossip about crass sales of manors and offices makes Richard I a model for his many subjects who also lust after what isn’t rightfully theirs. Abbess Helewise (Fortune Like the Moon, 2000) actually stumbles over one of them, a poacher whose body lies on the verge of woods fringing her abbey. The flint spearhead that killed Hamm Robinson hints that the mythical Forest People might have come to life and taken revenge on this treasure-hunting tree-killer. Lazy Sheriff Pelham is content with a supernatural explanation, but Helewise can’t resist investigating a murder so close to home. Even though she’s preoccupied with novice Caliste, a sleepwalker responding to the call of the forest, and with lay servant Esyllt, who also periodically disappears into the woods, she teams up with her worldly partner, king’s man Josse d’Acquin, who spends his first night in the wilderness witnessing another strange murder (and even stranger events) and his second night snuggling with Helewise. The demise of a third victim leads to a logical but fantastic solution.
Unfortunately, Clare’s careful revelation of a monstrous conspiracy is hampered by awkward exposition and dialogue by turns stilted and anachronistic (“not bad going”; “’s a free country”). Worse, she’s shackled herself to a formulaic rehash of her debut novel. Just where is she heading with her abbess and soldier?