Monthly Archives: June 2013

Tainted Coin Doesn’t Buy Much

CoinCoverLook up in Amazon or Good Reads or any other reading search engine the words “medieval mystery” or such similarly worded phrase, and you will find a legion of novels under this genre.  Because I particularly enjoyed the work of Ariana Franklin, author of “The Mistress of the Art of Death,” I thought I would also enjoy “The Tainted Coin” by Mel Starr.  Both books revolve around the conceit of a medieval physician who use their skills to solve murders.  Both are heavily steeped in the mood and history of the times.  But that is where the similarities end.  Whereas Franklin creates a fully-formed cast of characters and an intricate plot, Starr’s work is flat and his characters, especially the villains, seem like mere place-holders.  The plot of The Tainted Coin revolves around the discovery of a tradesman who has been beaten to death for mysterious reasons, until it is revealed that he held an ancient coin in his mouth…a coin that is no doubt one of many in a secret treasure trove.  The hero, Master Hugh de Singleton, sets out with his side-kick, the groom, Arthur, to solve the murder on behalf of his employer, Lord Gilbert.  The tale is told in the first person, which makes it more personal, but it fails to ever raise the reader’s concern over whether the murder is solved, the maiden is rescued, or the Abbot is caught out.  Which is a good thing, because the story does not conclude with any semblance of satisfaction.  This is a series of adventures, so perhaps this is a technique used on purpose to get us to read the next in the series, but alas, it did not work for this reader. (This book was the fifth in the series) On the plus side, the author does seem to know his history, and the story is liberally sprinkled throughout with the types of food, clothing, and weaponry of the era.  Starr has even supplied us with a glossary of terms, which was a welcome added benefit.  It is a cozy little story, but certainly no “Brother Cadfael” of this genre.  Although mildly amusing, it does not really succeed in entertaining. My advice, look elsewhere in the vast holdings of medieval mysteries for your fix.

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Arthurian Legend Endures

YoungKingArthurSean Pidgeon’s new novel “Finding Camlann” is described a a work of “lyrical prose (which) brings together history, myth, and dream, sweeping the reader into the mysteries of the past and the pure delight of storytelling.” I agree that the novel covers the history, myth and legend of Arthur well, but take exception to the claim that Pidgeon’s prose is lyrical.  The story is a good one: archeologist Donald Gladstone is following the tracks of the legendary King Arthur, trying to tease away the real man, if indeed he did exist, from the cobweb of legend which surrounds him.  All is brought to a head by the discovery of an ancient grave containing the mysterious remains of soldiers who have undergone the three-fold death (got to read the book for that), and what appears to be a King and Queen, holding a decorative goblet–the Holy Grail, you ask?  Donald, in his efforts to contain the media hype and outrageous claims about the discovery, enlists the help of an enigmatic Oxford professor of Welsh history and leader of the Welsh nationalist group Tan y Ddraig (no, that is not a typo), and a lovely linguist working at the Oxford English Dictionary, Julia Llewellyn.  Pidgeon, clearly well versed in Welsh history, linguistics, and lore, spins a good tale about the location of Arthur’s last battle and grave site based on poem written in Old Welsh.  Against the backdrop of the hunt for the real King Arthur is the story’s leitmotif: finding the man who was responsible for a Welsh nationalist bombing, which led to the death and injury of many in a small town.  The activity of the nationalist group is played against the search for Arthur, which for some goes beyond a historical curiosity to a hope of resurrecting the mythic great Welsh leader, or the ever present hope of finding an “Arthur” for Wales. The story is of particular importance to Julia, who has suspicions that the man responsible may be her husband, or father. Excalibur But the real main character in this novel is Wales itself: as the poetry, lore, landscape, history, and people are lovingly portrayed.  The plot hangs on a very rigorous understanding of Welsh/Arthurian history, so it may lose some readers….along with the fact that Pidgeon puts many of the poems and phrases in the original Welsh.  He does provide, however, and handy chronology of events from the building of Stonehenge (2400BC) to the death of Owain Glyn Dwr (1416) along with a guide to Welsh pronunciation of the place and personal names (for which I was eternally grateful).   Pidgeon has a good story, but his writing was uneven.  He had to rely heavily on a lot of “telling” with very little “showing” or action.  The times our hero is on the hunt of a discovery, it seems far too convenient when he stumbles across clues and makes discoveries that seem to just fall in his lap.  A lot of the dialogue is forced and wooden, because the character has to impart great amounts of history or legend to the reader in order to follow the plot.  Overall, it is a book I would recommend to the lover of Arthurian legend, an aficionado of ancient languages and linguistic mysteries, or to a one interested in the fascinating area called Wales.  I enjoyed it for those reasons.  And, I am prepared to forgive the author for creating a bitchy villain who shares my last name… Camlanncover

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