Cruel as the Grave
by Sharon Kay Penman
Published by Ballantine Books
3 Out of 5 StarsThis is one of those "I have no idea what compelled me to buy this book" discoveries on my bookshelves. It very clearly states on the front "A Medieval Mystery." Now, the only thing I hate more than a mystery is the Medieval time period. The wimples, the tonsures, the Lord this, Lady that, the tunics, the mutton, the mead, dear God, the drinking of the mead--it's too much bad fashion, bad food, and bad social hierarchies. And heaven forbid there be a sex scene because I assume everyone in the Medieval period had a hygiene level basically on par with that of Courtney Love. So why did I buy this book?
After discovering the novel while "weeding out" the old bookshelves to make room for some new goodies, I thought I would at least read the first 5 to 10 pages. You know, just enough to ease my conscience that I had at least given it a shot before putting it in the donation pile. So imagine my surprise when I look up nearly an hour later and I'm already 40 pages in. Cruel as the Grave is a serviceable mystery that doesn't browbeat you with historic detail and is a surprisingly accessible, swift read.
Set in--shall I say it again?--Medieval England during the imprisonment of Richard the Lionheart, the novel focuses on Justin de Quincy, the bastard child of a bishop, who has surprisingly risen through society's ranks to become the "Queen's man." As Eleanor of Aquitaine's trusted servant, Justin becomes embroiled in palace intrigue and the bitter rivalry between King Richard and Eleanor's youngest son, John, who has put his own machinations into motion as he tries to take the crown for himself in Richard's absence. In the meantime, Justin also investigates the murder of Melangell, a young Welsh girl used by (and most likely killed by) two privileged brothers whose status within their own family (the handsome and chosen firstborn versus the "black sheep") mirrors that of the royal brothers. Feeling an outsider's kinship with the dead Melangell, Justin becomes determined to bring her murderer to justice instead of allowing her life and death to be simply swallowed up by a London that is indifferent to its poor and foreign inhabitants.
While I found the overall mystery surrounding Melangell's murder rather pat with no surprises, it was an enjoyable read. Penman isn't a slave to historical detail; where many historical writers would find an excuse to weave in every bit of meaningless trivia gleaned from their research, Penman uses it judiciously to provide authenticity to the setting without overwhelming the reader. My understanding is that these are meant to be her "fun and fast" takes on history, so her more serious works may include much more historical detail if you're a fanatic for that type of read. For me, this was a fairly painless excursion into Medieval times.