Clare launches her new series in 1189, when Henry II of England has died from an anal fistula and his contentious queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, at large for the first time in 15 years, schemes to win acceptance for her favorite son, the foreign Richard Plantagenet, as king. Before he arrives from Poitiers, Eleanor, gambling on a p.r. move in his name, empties England's prisons. Immediately, a nun from the abbey of Hawkenlye meets a brutal death, and Richard's childhood friend, soldier of fortune Josse d'Acquin, is dispatched to handle the situation and salvage Richard's name—a task more and more complicated by what he learns from Helewise, the sharp Abbess of Hawkenlye. Evidently the victim, Gunnora of Winnowlands, was anything but a model novice, and she entered the convent under passing strange circumstances. Like Josse, the prose proceeds so overcarefully through the first half that little flaws in language and logic (abbess candidates are `short-listed` and discuss a `case of delayed shock`) stick out incongruously as Clare traces the tangled web linking Gunnora's kin to a family with adjoining lands and a series of more deliberate (and welcome) shocks. Queen Eleanor reappears, more vital than Richard, to set up the series, establishing Josse as future `king's man` for her famously absent son; and even the late Gunnora returns to life.
Cunningly shifting sympathies among virtually all the players, Clare spotlights first Helewise, then Josse, in a detecting competition that lifts the partners above their predictable gender roles—Josse tracks in the woods; Helewise has Miss Marple hunches—immersing them in a suddenly engrossing tale.