Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Heretic's Apprentice - Ellis Peters

   1990; 250 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #16 (out of 20) in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Cozy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    After a 7-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land, William of Lythwood and his young apprentice, Elave, have returned to Shrewsbury, only to find themselves both accused of heresy.  William takes this stoically.  After all, he is dead and in a casket.  All the heresy charge does is determine whether he will be buried within the grounds of the abbey.

    But for Elave, the price may be higher.  And there are three witnesses against him, including the lovely Fortunata.  He admits the testimony against him is true, and is unrepentant.  But when one of the witnesses turns up dead, Elave finds himself incarcerated on suspicion of murder, as well as heresy.

What’s To Like...
    The Heretic’s Apprentice, Ellis Peters’ 16th book in the series, has a somewhat different template.  Brother Cadfael does very little “solving” here, mostly he is just along for the ride as Brother Anselm, Fortunata, and the sheriff  do the sleuthing.  And atypically enough, Elave is eliminated as a murder suspect somewhat quickly.

    But that doesn’t detract from the story.  There is still the matter of who done it and why they done it.  You’ll walk beside Cadfael and Sheriff Hugh as the prime suspicion bounces around.

    It wouldn't be a Brother Cadfael story without a romance, of course.  This time the stumbling block is the charge of heresy against Elave.  There is also a lot of backstory.  The murder isn’t discovered until we’re more than 40% through the book.

    As always, the real joy of reading a Brother Cadfael story (besides the mystery) is Ellis Peters’ ability to create a believable 12th-century setting.  Everything “feels” right for June, 1143, including the people, the mindsets, the town, and the terrain.  If you like historical fiction, Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters is the author for you.

Kewlest New Word…
    Caparisoned (adj.)  :  clothed in finery (especially, a horse)

    “The good who go astray into wrong paths do more harm than the evil, who are our open enemies,” said Canon Gerbert sharply.  “It is the enemy within who betrays the fortress.”
    Now that, thought Cadfael, rings true of Church thinking.  A Seljuk Turk or a Saracen can cut down Christians in battle or throw stray pilgrims into dungeons, and still be tolerated and respected.  But if a Christian steps a little aside in his beliefs he becomes anathema.  (pg. 29)

    “I will not bow to such superstitious foolishness.  It would be to encourage the madmen, and put other souls in worse danger than mine.  This I don’t believe can come to anything perilous, if I stand my ground.  We have not yet come to that extreme of folly, that a man can be hounded for thinking about holy things.  You’ll see, the storm will pass over."
    “No,” she insisted, “not so easily.  Things are changing, did you not smell the smoke of it even there in the chapter house?”  (pg. 89)

“What are wits for ... unless a man uses them?”  (pg. 76)
    If there’s a weakness to The Heretic’s Apprentice, it lies in the details of the heresy charges against Elave.  Ellis Peters brings up a slew of Augustinian issues – infant baptism, original sin, grace-vs.-works, free will vs. predestination, and something called the Patripassian Heresy.  These are all worthy topics, but it feels clunky as she tries to squeeze them all into the story.  The grand finale – the heresy trial itself – feels rushed, and I found its key arguments to be non-persuasive.

    The more subtle theological issues here – dying with un-confessed sins and renouncing one’s unorthodox beliefs – are done with a much defter touch.  But I kept wondering just how realistic these dogma debates were for that time period, especially among the common folk.

    Kudos to Ms. Peters for the ambitious attempt to address some weighty theological issues here.  She didn’t quite get the clunks out, but that doesn’t change the fact that the plusses of The Heretic’s Apprentice far outweigh the minuses.  8 Stars.

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