This unusual tale conjures visions of an Errol Flynn–type Hollywood swashbuckler.
Jean Rombaud has a rather distasteful job by today’s standards: He presides over formal executions by cutting off the heads of those condemned to die, providing they are rich enough to pay for his services. Jean is a French executioner and uses a flathead sword rather than an axe to sever the head from the body, which is faster and more accurate. This time he has been retained to preside over the May 1536 beheading of Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn, the queen of England. In a meeting before her execution, she asks Jean to also sever her famous six-fingered hand (an attribute not all historians believe she possessed) and bury it in France. He agrees, and when the hand is stolen, he sets out to recover it. Along the way, Jean’s journey becomes complicated by both camaraderie and love. Among the companions he acquires as he crosses the European continent are two fellow mercenaries—a Norseman and his part-wolf dog and a Muslim who has crossed some very bad people—a member of a famous German banking family and his pet raven; a young boy who may not be what he appears; and the boy’s alchemist father, a captive of Jean’s sworn enemy, the thief who took the hand for his own nefarious purposes. Humphreys, whose background includes choreographing sword fights for movies and television, tends to overdo the details involved in the many fights in which the band of adventurers engage. But while he takes a few small liberties with history, the tale’s well-told, engagingly written, and includes a colorful immersion into a time when life was cheap and danger or death literally waited around every corner.
A gory but fascinating, albeit overly long, look at the world in the early 16th century.