The erudite and entertaining Ackroyd brings 1380s London to life all over again, with many a nod to The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer set his people on the road, but there’s no actual pilgrimage in Ackroyd (The Plato Papers, 2000, etc.), whose characters pretty much stay in London. The Canterbury pilgrims do appear again, by name and vocation, though noting the differences between Chaucer’s characters and Ackroyd’s can be as much fun as crediting the similarities. Once again, they’re hardly a fault-free lot, though Ackroyd throws us a curve or two—his Physician is good through and through, his Pardoner hardly so bad a guy, and, unlike Chaucer’s saintly Clerk, Ackroyd’s is up for skullduggery indeed. What binds the tales together (aside from the much shared humanity in the close confines of a medieval city) is, not surprisingly, politics. Readers of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays will be right at home: the tales here are told over exactly the same time as Henry Bolingbroke returns from France to reclaim the throne and depose (and then worse) Richard II. In fact, much of Ackroyd’s drama is generated through the machinations of a radically religious secret pro-Bolingbroke cell led by the truly monstrous William Exmewe (the Friar), whose belief as a so-called “predestined man” is that nothing one does for the good cause can be a sin—and readers will learn soon enough what Exmewe is capable of doing, as will Thomas Gunter (the Physician), Miles Vavasour (the Man of Law), and others. As the political crisis deepens, so does the threat to one of the cloistered nuns, Clarice, who, thought to be mad, emits prophetic utterances that displease the Prioress, stir up the townspeople, and most severely anger the king’s protectors. There will be arrests, interrogations, and worse before stability returns.
Thoroughly captivating: the whole medieval panorama re-achieved by a modern, with all the atmosphere of the old.