Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Medieval Mystery

The Falconer's Knot by Mary Hoffman
3Q 3P M/J

Ah, what fools these mortals be! If only Silvano hadn't fallen in love (well, lust) with Angelica. If only Angelica hadn't been flattered by his attentions. But he did, and she was, and that's a problem, since Angelica is married (unhappily) to a wealthy merchant much older than she is. Now Angelica's husband is dead, Silvano's dagger is found buried in his chest, and Silvano has blood on his hands. Yes, the blood is Angelica's husband's. But Silvano is innocent of the murder. He merely found the man and tried to help him. But will anyone believe that, when it's known that Silvano was courting the man's wife? Not likely! Before anyone has a chance to arrest him, Silvano is shipped off in secret to take sanctuary in the Franciscan monastery in a city miles away.

Chiara is newly arrived at the convent of the Poor Clares. She has no vocation for such a life, but she also has no father and no dowry. What she does have is a brother who has no wish to share his life and goods with his sister. The sooner he can wash his hands of her, the better. And where else can he send her but to a convent? Chiara is miserable, but has no say in the matter. It is the fourteenth century, and women do as the men in the lives say they must.

As it happens, the convent is next door to the monastery. Chiara is outside when Silvano arrives. Her curiosity is instantly aroused. Who is this novice who arrives on a fine horse with a peregrine falcon on its saddle? He has neither the clothing nor the look of a true novice. But then again, she is hardly a true novice herself. She looks and she wonders, but she has little reason to expect that any of her questions will be answered.

But God does work in mysterious ways. Perhaps it is His hand that directs them both to the color rooms in their respective new homes, where they help make the colors used by some of the master artists of Renaissance Italy. Once made, these colors need to be delivered to the artists. As novices, both Silvano and Chiara are allowed off the grounds, and they are both selected to accompany the brother (friar) and sister (nun) making those deliveries. Of course, the proprieties must be observed. They should not speak to each other. In fact, they should not even look at each other. But of course they do. And they like what they see.

Much to the surprise of both, each is settling into their new lives with comparative ease. Both the brothers and the sisters are strict, but kind. And there is some comfort to be had in the order of the days, though there is also always a desire for freedom to live the lives they wish to live. But soon Silvano's newly calm and supposedly safe life is shattered by murder once again. A merchant visiting the monastery is found dead in his bed, also killed by a dagger to his chest. The monks begin to cast a wary eye on Silvano, for word of his true reason for being there has leaked out. Is Silvano a murderer after all?

But Silvano is not the only one at the monastery with a secret, and the murders don't stop at two. Silvano's sanctuary is no longer safe, for him or for anyone else. Silvano is determined to prove his innocence and discover who is defiling this sacred place, and Chiana is equally determined to help him.

This is an enjoyable blend of mystery and historical fiction, with just enough romance to satisfy those who yearn for it but not so much that it'll turn off those who just want the mystery. Though this book has garnered some excellent reviews, my reaction is a little less enthusiastic. At times, the writing pulled me out of the story, usually because of a sudden change in tone, less than graceful phrasing, or because I had a "told, not shown" feeling. I also felt two characters who fit quite well elsewhere in the story seemed forced into the mystery aspect of it. Some parts of the mystery are more satisfying than others. On the plus side, I thought Hoffman developed situations for her characters that were involving and intriguing. I couldn't help but feel for the plight of Chiara, Angelica, and Isabella, all of whom are at the mercy of the men in their lives, as well as for the falsely-accused Silvano. And Silvano is an appealing character who is worth rooting for. Information about medieval art was smoothly integrated into the story and quite interesting. And even given that the needs of fiction sometimes overtook historical accuracy, I enjoyed immersing myself in fourteenth century life and learning things about it I never knew.

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