Life in late–seventh-century Ireland can be rife with conflict, but you’d never know it from Sister Fidelma’s endlessly pedantic approach to crime. Fidelma (Act of Mercy, 2001, etc.), a royal lawyer, races to a rival kingdom to rescue a friend and the friend’s brother, the King of Cashel, from an imminent hanging. Saxon Brother Eadulf has been summarily tried for the rape and murder of a novice at the Abbey of the Blessed Maedoc. Ancient Irish tradition forbids capital punishment, but the Abbey and the kingdom of Muman have come under the pernicious (in Fidelma is and Tremayne’s undisguised opinion) influence of the Roman Penitentials, the punitive code of justice that precedes our own. In arguing for Eadulf’s life, Fidelma’s also asserting the superiority of the humane Irish tradition by means of tedious legal interpretations, with ancient Irish words masquerading as stirring oratory. Fortunately for Eadulf, however, her arguments bully the Muman King into allowing her to investigate. At the Abbey, Fidelma meets the power-hungry Abbess Fainder, a Roman convert and a firm believer in Eadulf’s guilt, bolstered by an eyewitness and a bloody piece of the victim’s robe found on the suspect. The judge, Cashel’s old enemy Bishop Forbassach, seems equally convinced of the Saxon’s guilt and loyal to the Abbess. Only the stewardess of the Abbey, Sister Etromma, seems immune to the Abbess’s charisma.
Tremayne’s history is intellectually stimulating. If only he were as interested in humanizing Fidelma as in educating readers on the glories of ancient Irish civilization.