|Alys Clare: Ashes of the Elements|
Martin's Press (Hardcover), ISBN 0-312-26124-1
A peasant man found murdered on the fringe of the vast and wild Wealden Forest does not raise eyebrows, given the violent nature of 12th century England, until Abbess Helewise realizes his death came by an unusual flint-headed spear, as expertly crafted as it was wielded. The obtuse sheriff, swift to blame the elusive Forest People closes the case and beelines for the pub.
Abbess Helewise, however, believes the solution to be far more complex. Especially when two young ladies in her care begin sleepwalking, singing unintelligible chants and disappearing into the forest for hours at a stretch.
But after Helewise enlists the aid of Sir Josse d'Acquin, newly appointed lord of a neighboring manor, the sleuths find few answers -- and more corpses. Helewise and Josse must solve the puzzle before the killer strikes again.
Once again, Clare delivers a story ripe with deceptive appearances set against the florid tapestry of Jolly Olde England. Christian and non-Christian belief systems fuel the conflict as Helewise and Josse witness the Forest People's rites. I bestow a bonus point for Clare's avoidance of the "Christian equals good, pagan equals bad" trap and its equally unrealistic converse.
Perhaps a reader can forgive such un-medieval phrases as "wishy-washy" and "get a move on." But Clare would be well advised to remember that, with every book, an author's characters get only one chance to make a favorable first impression. Abbess Helewise dithers so much at the beginning of Ashes of the Elements that, if I hadn't enjoyed Fortune Like the Moon, I would have stopped reading altogether.
Fortunately, Helewise settles into a sensible stride when she sets her hand toward solving the murders. But with so many novels competing for attention these days, an impatient reader might never see it.
Which would be too bad, indeed. Abbess Helewise's firm yet gentle faith, which subtly shades her choices and the way she deals with others, provides a refreshing change from the usual mystery fare.
Kim D. Headlee
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