The Needle in the Blood is the story of Bishop Odo of Bayeux and his mysterious mistress, Aethelgytha. One of the mysteries of the Bayeux Tapestry is a certain panel in which there is a cleric striking (or touching) a woman’s face, with the caption “here is a cleric and Aelfgifu.” The speculation is that the scene refers to a well-known scandal of the day; maybe that of Odo and his mistress? This is where Bower fills in the gaps, and she does an admirable job with it.
In the novel, Gytha is a Saxon woman, brought low after the Norman conquest, when she is brought in to assist in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned by Odo and designed by his sister. Although Gytha hates Odo at first, she is nonetheless attracted to the Bishop, holy orders notwithstanding. The novel covers a ten-year period, from the Battle of Hastings to 1077. Although William the Conquror doesn't make an appearance in the novel until the end, he’s always at the center of attention, controlling Odo's life and actions.
The story is very well told. Although the technical process of embroidering the tapestry is only discussed in any detail at the beginning of the book, it was fascinating for me to learn that the events depicted on it were comprised of the experiences of the many people who created it—and that those people had different perspectives on what happened during the Conquest. There are a number of other mysteries surrounding the figures on the tapestry, and Bower fills in the missing pieces very neatly. For example, was Harold really shot in the eye with an arrow? In part, a lot of historical texts are revisionist, and the Bayeux Tapestry is proof positive of that, so I think the author did a good job with discerning fact from fiction.
The love story is very strong, though the sex scenes were a little over-the-top. In real life, Odo was later accused of defrauding the Crown and his diocese, and then planning a military expedition to Italy, ostensibly to make himself pope. It was believed that his wealth was gained through extortion and robbery. It was interesting to me to see how the author tackled Odo’s prickly reputation, and I think she did it admirably.