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Review: The Canterbury Papers, by Judith Koll Healey

From Booklist:
Debut novelist Healey brings medieval history to life in magnificent fashion as she adds a new twist to an old legend. An elderly Eleanor of Aquitaine requests that her former ward, Alais Capet, the sister of the king of France, travel to Canterbury and retrieve a cache of letters Eleanor had hidden in the cathedral there years earlier. Alais is reluctant, but Eleanor dangles an irresistible carrot in front of her: a promise of information about the whereabouts of Alais' illegitimate child. The French princess undertakes the dangerous task, only to be kidnapped by a desperate King John. Alais must unravel an intricately tangled web of family intrigue and deception that could lead either to a reunion with her lost son or to her own destruction. Plagued by infidelity and mistrust, petty jealousy and political rivalry, the infamously dysfunctional Plantagenets plot and scheme against one another in this electrifying journey into the past.

I’ve read this book twice now. The first time was about four years ago, and I recall LOVING it—why, I can’t imagine, since on a second reading, I found The Canterbury Papers to be mediocre at best. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the novels of Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick, who far and away write far more compelling stories than this one.

Maybe it’s the plot of this book that doesn’t work for me: it’s completely far-fetched and unrealistic. Granted, it’s an interesting way to learn about the Plantagenets during the last quarter of the 12th century, but I simply couldn’t get over the fact that the author has a French princess playing detective, all the while to recover a set of incriminating letters. I also found it hard to believe that a woman of Alais’s station in life would be have the way she does here, or that she would have the kind of independence that she has here. Plus, the dialogue was sort of stilted, and the author, for whatever reason, had her characters speaking English—in France.

The mystery itself is trite and predictable; I could see that coming from a mile away. Don’t know what the pendant had to do with anything, as it seemed a little bit incidental to the mystery. Also, the connection between the Templars and the mystery was never fully explored. Also superficially explored was Alais’s past. Healey has fodder here for a much deeper, more emotional story, but doesn’t use it to its full potential. Maybe she’ll explore Alais’s story more in her next book, The Rebel Princess? Still, this book is a light read, and a quick way to pass the time. Just don’t take the whole story as gospel fact.

Also reviewed by: S. Krishma's Books


How odd that you loved it the first time and not so much the second! Although, I do understand what you mean about being spoiled by Penman and Chadwick. I'm sure there are a few HF novels that if I read again, I'd have to double think my initial assessment. Also, the mood you're in when reading a book is a big factor...I find that when I'm agitated, little nuances in the book can drive me crazy!
Marg said…
I have owned this book for years and years and years, but I haven't yet managed to read it. I just haven't been inspired yet, and I don't imagine I will be for a while!

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