Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review of Death of a Squire: A Templar Mystery, by Maureen Ash

Allow me to begin with a caveat: The following review speaks as much about my personal reading tastes as it does about the quality of Death of a Squire, so please take that into consideration while weighing my words below.

Book Description:

After eight years of captivity in the Hoy Land, Templar Bascot de Marins escapes with injuries to his body and soul. Now on a sojourn at Lincoln Castle, he is sometimes called upon to uphold the will of God and he laws of man... Late in the autumn of 1200 A.D., the townspeople of Lincoln are preparing to host the first meeting between the king of Scotland and King John. Days before their arrival, a squire's body is found hanging from a tree deep in the forest,and the castellan of Lincoln castle entrusts Bascot with the task of finding the killer. When outlaws kidnap his trusted servant, Gianni, Bascot is surprised by his own familial feelings for the boy. Despite the unsolved crime and potentially murderous rumors, nothing becomes more important to Bascot than Gianni's safe return. Could these two misdeeds be linked by chance...or by cunning?

To be honest (and please see my caveat above), the most attractive part of this book for me was the cover art. The miniature scenes portrayed from the story were excellently rendered and delightful to behold. It was the sort of cover I could find myself coveting, were I not so happy with the cover of my own medieval romance, Loyalty’s Web.

As for the inside of the book, however, I regret to say that I had many a quibble. First off, the author immediately distanced me from “bonding” with any of her characters by choosing to narrate the majority of the story from the omniscient point of view. It was like observing the story taking place from someplace high above the setting, as if I were a bird watching events while soaring over the town of Lincoln and neighboring Sherwood Forest, somewhat interested at times in what the characters might be doing below, but never fully involved with any of them. I was in no one’s head and I was in everyone’s head, and on the few occasions I was in a character’s head, I found myself snatched way too quickly, just when I thought I might actually start caring about the person’s who’s head I was visiting.

Another drawback to me was the overwhelming number of characters. I could not begin to keep them all straight in my mind, especially the number of minor pages and squires who kept popping up by name, when there were so many other names to try to keep track of. I continually found myself scratching my head and saying, “Who is this again?” Unfortunately, it was rare that I cared enough about the story to go back and look a forgotten character up.

Other strikes against Death of a Squire:

The dialogue, what there was of it, felt awkward and stiff, rather than lively and flowing, even allowing for a greater formality of medieval speech.

I felt the lengthy portions of narration slowed the pace of the story. Was the moment when one character was swimming across a treacherous river to confront his arch rival really the time for him to slip into a four-page flashback of his childhood, youth, and subsequent misfortunes in life? Just one example of a too-frequent break in the “flow”. The pacing was also slowed by frequent pauses for the author to share her medieval research with us. Do I care how charcoal was made in the Middle Ages? Possibly. But do I want to stop in the middle of the story for a detailed description of the process, when the protagonist should be hot on the trail of a murderer, especially when, though the charcoal maker was important, the process of making charcoal had nothing beyond “research interest” to do with the plot of the story.

Now, returning to my caveat, I know that there are readers out there who thoroughly enjoy such “research stops” when reading an historical novel, but I’m afraid I’m not one of them. Weave the research “naturally” into the story, by all means, but don’t bring all action to a stop to tell me about it. To put it simply, as a reader, I personally read for story first. The research should be a happy, well-woven bonus, not bring me to screeching halt.

To be honest, I would not have finished reading this book, had I not committed to it as part of a the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2009. But there are many readings tastes out there. If you are one who enjoys books told from many multiple viewpoints (though more often from that bird’s eye view), who read more for picking up bits of arcane research than for action and plot, Death of a Squire might be a book for you!

No comments: