Madness and death follow in quick order in 16th-century England.
When a pregnant woman clad only in her night smock falls from the steeple of St. Vedast in London’s Foster Lane, Bianca Goddard, who’s moving into the neighborhood with her husband, John Grunt, examines the body. She’s an herbalist well-versed in illness and death, but she can’t tell much from the victim’s body, and the sole witness, a drunk, can say only that the woman seemed out of her head. Father Nelson, the priest at St. Vedast, offers to preside over funeral rites for her even though she appears to be a suicide. At the service, John introduces Bianca to Boisvert, the silversmith to whom John’s apprenticed and in whose house John and Bianca are temporarily living. Boisvert’s fiancee, Odile Farendon, a generous soul who wants to help restore the stripped, decaying St. Vedast to its pre-Reformation glory, gives Bianca a fine gown to wear to the wedding. Bianca, who has little use for the fripperies of her social betters, is frustrated that while she and John are living in Boisvert’s house, she can’t practice the alchemy she learned from her father. But a startling death at the nuptial banquet and reports of similar cases give Bianca a new purpose, as do a wrongful imprisonment, a misplaced will, and some tiresome political maneuverings between the White Bakers’ and the Brown Bakers’ guilds. Despite an authorial disclaimer about anachronisms, it’s disconcerting when actors quote Hamlet 60 years before it was written. Even more puzzling is a supernatural character who frames the tale but otherwise has nothing to do with the plot.
Although the novel may be freighted with too much research for its own good, its no-nonsense heroine (Death of an Alchemist, 2016, etc.), like so many others of her ilk, propels the action very successfully by refusing to mind her own business.