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Book Review: The Servant’s Tale by Margaret Frazer

I quite enjoyed this medieval murder mystery, part of a series written by Frazer and featuring the clever and intrepid nun, Sister Frevisse who, it happens, was a great-niece of Geoffrey Chaucer. Though this is the second book in the series, it’s the first I’ve read and it stands alone nicely.

Steeped in historic detail that deposits you in the period easily (approx 1430s), the pace of life and religiosity of not only the nuns who share the nunnery with Frevisse, but the villagers as well is described. It’s Christmas time, and a group of travelling players seek the hospitality of the Nunnery as the only child among them is sick. So, we discover, are many of the nuns who have succumbed to the time of year, the bitter temperatures, drafty halls and lack of warmth and a lurgy that spreads. Coughs and sneezes punctuate prayers and hymns and Frevisse herself is fighting off a malady and finds the constant sickness of her peers (and herself) frustrating.

It’s just as well then that, halfway through the book, something happens to distract her. A young villager, Sym, the son of one of the nunnery’s servants, dies after a fight in a tavern. When she examines the body, which is brought to the nunnery for the rites, the sister discovers that it wasn’t the fight in the tavern that killed this feisty, disagreeable sixteen year old, but another, deeper and deliberate wound.

Determined to get to the bottom of this case before the Crowner arrives to investigate, what Sister Frevisse doesn’t expect is the body count to rise – but it does. Suspicion naturally falls on the travelling players, but Sister Frevisse isn’t convinced. Can she overcome the biases of the Crowner and the villagers and see justice done? Or will the travellers pay for a crime they didn’t commit? Or did they? Can she discover the perpetrator before even more people die?

This was an easy to read book that was also a little slow. Setting the scene and time took pages and pages – and while the writing is tight and the characters wonderfully drawn, nothing actually happened till almost the halfway point in the book. After that, the action was swifter, but only by comparison. If a reader is looking for a murder mystery (as the book is advertised), they might be disappointed. As an historical novel, however, the book is excellent.

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