Enjoyable storytelling marred by major irritants
I had been contemplating a long rant setting forth in detail how and why this book trespasses into several of my pet peeve areas at once, but as I won’t be rushing to read the next books from the series even though I enjoyed it from a mere storytelling point of view, here’s the expedited version:
- The main character, Gil Cunningham; sort of a nice-guy-from-next-door, not-superhuman guy who comes across as by and large very believable, albeit at times a bit too goodie-two-shoes for someone who has just spent several years at a foreign university and has traveled a considerable distance to get there and back home, and therefore would have to be expected to have seen his fair share of the world and gained his fair share of experience.
- Ditto Gil’s new best friend and (as is not hard to guess virtually from the get-go) father-in-law-to-be, Pierre, who joins Gil in investigating the murder. Ditto also some of the secondary characters, such as Gil’s uncle (and professional tutor/benefactor), Canon Cunningham – in fact, I’m not sure that Maistre Pierre and Canon Cuningham aren’t the characters I like best overall here – as well as the titular harper (the victim’s lover) and his sister.
- The setting, medieval Glasgow, with plenty of period detail, most of which sounds well-researched and believable (for the period detail aspects that I found less convincing, see below).
- The storytelling, which was engaging enough to keep me going even though I’d run into my first pet peeve before I’d even read the book’s very first sentence, which in turn swiftly proceeded to run afoul of the next one, and I ran into several others within a very short time thereafter.
- The first sentence: “At the May Day dancing at Glasgow Cross, Gilbert Cunningham saw not only the woman who was going to be murdered, but her murderer as well” … Oh, did he now? Granted, in real life (and especially in a major modern city), this might be rather a stunning coincidence. But, let’s face it, in a mystery this sort of situation is not an unusual premise at all, and even less so in a mystery that more or less falls into the “cozy” mold, at least insofar as it is clear from the start that we will only be dealing with a narrowly circumscribed cast of characters – and in a setting that, although “urban” by medieval standards, is a far cry from modern-day Glasgow, or indeed from any modern city. So, big yawn right then and there, and if it hadn’t been for the setting, I wouldn’t even have bothered to read on at all.
- Manifold pointless displays of the author’s own erudition, which don’t do anything to further the story; including in the book’s dedication, which sets forth in Latin (!) that the author dedicates the book to her loved ones with much love, and in joyful memory of her parents. Even the dedication aside, though, there were several instances that had me wondering “… and I need to know this because …??”
- In addition to substantial pointless infodump, also major “technical” (in this instance, legalese) infodump, which considerably bogs down the narrative flow; unless you choose to ignore it entirely, at the risk of then not being able to understand the solution to the murder. This was supposed to be a leisure read, for crying out loud, not a treatise on medieval Scottish marriage and property law. I realize of course that if such issues have a bearing on the outcome of your story, you must explain them somehow, but (a) for one thing I’m not sure they really were all that indispensable here, and (b) even if they were, having them come out of a conversation between two lawyers (who might as well be speaking Chinese, or Martian, or Klingon, to anyone not likewise of their profession) is hardly the most appropriate way, even if the conversation in question is still a bit less technical than it might have been in real life. (Being of said profession myself, I did manage to make sense of the issues, but I couldn’t help thinking “thank God they’re talking about the law and not about medicine or engineering.”) Personally, I vastly prefer the way this is handled by C.J. Sansom, whose main character (Matthew Shardlake) is a lawyer as well, and who typically introduces the legal concepts relevant to his books either by way of Shardlake’s explanations to clients and other non-lawyers in laymen’s terms, or by eschewing “show, don’t tell” entirely and giving a straightforward explanation in the narrative, albeit in Shardlake’s voice – and who typically also appends an explanatory note to his books, setting forth their real-life period background, including any relevant legal concepts. I can’t help but feel that such a note would have been highly beneficial to this present book as well.
- An imbalance of infodump on the one hand and insufficient background information on the other hand. E.g., Gil’s big conflict is having to (and not wanting to) join the clergy in order to be able to practice as a lawyer at all, because he doesn’t have sufficient means to set up shop on his own. – Now, I happen to be at least marginally familiar with the interplay of the clerical and the legal world in the Middle Ages, because legal history happens to be an area I am interested in, so I could just about make sense of what was supposed to be going on there. But anyone wholly unfamiliar with Gil’s professional background certainly wouldn’t be able to glean as much from the pages of this book alone, or understand how having studied law in Paris would make you fit to become a clergyman in Scotland to begin with.
- Sloppiness either in writing or in research (can’t tell and frankly don’t care which it is), e.g. in mentioning a book title that would be commensurate with today’s legal literature, but entirely untypical of the titles of medieval law books (indeed, not even in keeping with the medieval concept of legal compendiums to begin with). This, moreover, for a book which in and of itself is wholly irrelevant to the story and whose title is merely one of a myriad “show, don’t tell” details that could easily be dropped or replaced by something more convincing.
- Cardboard characters, especially in the description of the rich and powerful, as well as the one representative of bourgh (city) law enforcement.
- Being able to guess the murderer way too early in the story. I had a suspicion early on (just hoped for it to be a red herring), was almost certain less than halfway through, and my last doubts were removed two thirds of the way into the book; by an incident, moreover, whose central clue (an exclamation in Italian) the author only partially even bothers to unravel in the final wind-up: and the part that she doesn’t unravel is not only precisely the part that clinched the solution for me once and for all – much more importantly, it is also an exclamation that Pierre, who is present on the occasion and speaks Italian (he even translates for Gil) would have had to be blind, deaf and dumb not to put into context immediately himself.
- A cop-out on the main character’s central conflict, which isn’t actually resolved by his struggles with his own conscience (even though he does even have a somewhat pedestrianly-executed epiphany-esque moment), but by the beneficient interference of third parties.
- And lastly, biggest and most important pet peeve, and my main deterrent from reading any further books from this series: A completely unbelievable female main character; namely, Gil’s love interest and (as is likewise clear virtually from the get-go) bride-to-be, Pierre’s daughter Alys. That kid, at age 16 mind you and never mind that upwards of 75% of all women in the Middle Ages couldn’t read to begin with, has an erudition not only matching but arguably greater than Gil’s (although he comes from a more scholarly background), is – without any formal schooling whatsoever – able to argue, off hand and in three different languages (including Latin), fine points of law and theology that Gil just spent several years at Paris University studying, advances views that not even forward-thinking and powerful real-life medieval women such as Christine de Pizan, Hildegard of Bingen or Eleanor of Aquitaine dared to express this openly (moreover, at the beginning of the book, to a young man whom she has only just met and knows to be destined for the clergy, at a time in history when anything making a woman “troublesome” in male (or female competitive) eyes – certainly excessive learning and self-assurance – could have ended up branding her a witch and landing her on a pyre, based on a trial conducted by exactly the sort of Canon lawyer Gil Cunningham is destined to become, and guided by the infamous “Hammer Against Witches” published a mere ten years before this book’s action takes place) … while at the same time also merrily and competently running her widowed father’s household and besting even women twice or three times her age, and multiple mothers at that, in various tricky situations involving babies and small children. She is, in other words, Superwoman (or rather, Supergirl) writ large. In fact, with all of her manifold accomplishments, I would have had trouble buying her as a character even in a book set in more modern times, but for the Middle Ages, she is totally unbelievable and off the mark. And as she is destined to feature largely in the series’s subsequent books as well, she is the main reason why I won’t be rushing to read any of them. (Just as an aside and for related reasons, the attitudes that the book’s “good guys”, not only Gil, Alys and Pierre, but also Canon Cunningham take towards the victim and her back story, are neither commensurate with medieval clerical and legal doctrine nor certainly with medieval popular opinion, either. That, too, I found rather an irritant.)
As I enjoyed the book from a mere storytelling point of view, as well as the “period details” relating to medieval Scotland as a setting, my rating is overall higher than the room given to the above “dislikes” would suggest. Also, undoubtedly these are personal dislikes, so to a certain extent it’s a question of “this is just me.” (Although since I said at the beginning of this review that the above is the expedited version, you can probably imagine what the full rant would have been like …) Be that as it may:
Someone said in a “pro” review somewhere that where Brother Cadfael left off, this series picks up: I would beg to differ; and not only because Ellis Peters unfailingly had her facts right down to every single detail, and created characters whose attitudes, prejudices and other makeup were actually in synch with the times about which she wrote. Indeed, Brother Cadfael’s often different attitudes and opinions (which he has reached after a lifetime of, literally, having seen the world as it was then known) frequently are a challenge to his contemporaries precisely because they are highly unorthodox from those contemporaries’ point of view, and for the very same reason, Cadfael often gets in trouble. Perhaps most importantly, none of Ellis Peters‘s characters, certainly neither Cadfael himself nor any of the women he encounters, are anywhere near infallible, nor do any of the women transcend (at all, let alone as egregiously as Alys does here) the historically verifiable boundaries of women’s life in the Middle Ages. – In short, Mrs. McIntosh knows how to spin a story, and she also seems to know a fair bit about medieval Glasgow, but she has a long way to go yet if she even wants to get anywhere near the league of Ellis Peters (or, for that matter, C.J. Sansom).