Clark, Cassandra - 'The Red Velvet Turnshoe'
This novel, the second in a series about the Abbess of Meaux, is set in the year 1383, when England is being ruled by John of Gaunt acting on behalf of Richard the Second who is only 16 years of age. Half the population of Europe has been destroyed by a plague known as "The Black Death", a pestilence brought on by floods followed by famine.
The nun Hildegard is sent across Europe in search of a precious relic, the Cross of Constantine. Hildegard is a young and wealthy widow, with her husband missing-presumed dead in France seven years before. Educated and seeking to be independent, she has chosen the life of a nun. Not only can she put her wealth to good use, but it is also the path to political influence and personal power.
Personal travel at this time was very dangerous and time consuming. She is asked at first to go from her base in Meaux, Yorkshire to Ravenser on the English coast and then by ship to Bruges. Her ultimate destination is intended to be Rome but it is later changed to Florence. Because of the concerns about being attacked by bandits, travel is mainly done in groups.
Whilst resting in Bruges, awaiting for a group of merchants to form up to continue across France to the Alps a dead body is discovered on the ship that she travelled across on. The main suspect is a young man, Pierrekyn, who is a musician and, after questioning him she feels that he is innocent and she decides to help him avoid arrest and possible lynching. Accompanying her is a jousting knight whom she persuades of the lad's innocence and they disguise the young man as the squire of the knight and resume their journey.
I found this really engrossing storyline a real joy to read. The brilliantly researched historical background really transports you back into the 14th century. The author uses technical words from the period (there is a glossary at the back) to really add to the gripping atmospheric detail. I didn't want this book to end and I will have no hesitation in including it in my top five best reads of 2009. May this author write many more novels of this high quality in the future.
Read another review of THE RED VELVET TURNSHOE.
Terry Halligan, England