Let loose thy jerkins and bodices: this long, lax, chatty first novel has a medieval tale to spin and an unlikely hero and heroine with which to spin it.
Ladies get lonely once their husbands are slain in knightly duels across the sea. But never fear: for the lonely lady, Kathryn, there’s a dwarf, an artist, a cleric, and a whole mess of intrigue to help her pass the time. The artist in question, the center of the tale, is an illuminator of manuscripts who has a full-time gig working for the local episcopate. But, just as there “was some what thought Holy Church had too much property,” our illuminator, Finn, has been off to the wars in France and, in the autumn of his years, has little patience with authority, which is why Oxford don John Wycliffe’s notion that there should be a Bible accessible to the laity seems a good one indeed. For his part, Wycliffe has the requisite soul-searching bouts over the project: “Could it be pride, intellectual arrogance, and not God, that called him to such a gargantuan task?” Maybe, but it could also be the endless machinations of John of Gaunt, everyone’s favorite Lancastrian, that push Wycliffe and his illuminator onward. Enter the clerical police and inquisitors, who become ever more interested once one of their number turns up dead. The premise is intriguing, but Vantrease’s tale has a by-the-numbers feel to it, with set pieces, set characters, and set descriptions (among them detailed views of the sweat-drenched, well-formed bosoms of the local nobility) filling her pages. As her story develops, Vantrease works in some promising twists, including one that speaks to the history of “hidden Jews” in medieval Europe, but in the end the story is overlong and underdone.
Aspire to the heights of Name of the Rose it doth, but this confection feels like a blend of genre romance and a forgotten episode of Brother Caedfael.