Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Review: Death Comes as Epiphany, by Sharan Newman
It’s late 1139, and Catherine LeVendeur is a novice in the convent of the Paraclete, whose abbess, Heloise, is the former lover of Abelard. A psalter has disappeared from the convent, one that could severely damage the already-damaged Abelard, and Heloise sends Catherine away from the convent, ostensibly in disgrace for misbehavior, to get the book back. But at the Abbey of Saint Denis, a stone mason literally falls dead, and it’s up to the intrepid Catherine to figure out, using her wits, what happened.
The historical detail is quite good. I understand that the author has a PhD in medieval history, and she definitely shows it off a bit. Those who aren’t well versed in medieval history might find themselves wishing that the book provided a glossary of terms; the author continually uses words and phrases like bliaut (a women's loose-fitting overgarment), aversier, bricon (rascal), chainse (a linen chemise), gaufre (waffles), braies (an undergarment tied at the waist) awaeris thu, and mesel (a leper). There’s also a fair amount of Latin that's used in this book. Still, this is the kind of historical verisimilitude that I look for in a historical novel.
But I liked the story; it’s mostly original (though there are one or two things that are a bit predictable), and it moves at a relatively fast pace. The main character is spunky, and the relationship between herself and Edgar, the English stone carver, held my interest throughout. I also enjoyed how philosophy and reason are interwoven throughout the story, contrasting them with sheer, blind faith, and I enjoyed watching Catherine use her wits in order to figure out what happened to the psalter. The addition of real historical figures didn’t weigh heavily on the story or feel too contrived, either. I look forward to reading what’s next for Catherine LeVendeur.