June 28, 2004

The Subtle Serpent, by Peter Tremayne

This is one of Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries; he also writes about the history of the Celts under the name of Peter Berresford Ellis.

Fidelma of Cashel is the sister of the King of Cashel and a highly educated advocate of the Brehon laws in Ireland in the 7th century AD. She speaks three or four languages, can read and write and has studied law for eight years in a bardic school in Tara, the central kingdom of Ireland and domain of the High King. She also is a member of the religious community of the St. Brigid of Kildare. The community that she belongs to is very different from the monasticism that later developed in Europe with celibacy and cloistering as basic tenets. The Irish church had developed separately from Rome during the early part of the millennium and had adapted to the cultural values of the Irish Celtic society. Tremayne, by the way, includes an excellent introduction giving some of the background of tensions between Irish Catholicism and Roman Catholicism that creates a lot of the tension in the book. Fidelma has not taken vows of celibacy, nor has she entered a cloistered community so she is available to lend her assistance as an Advocate of the Courts when a legal issue, such as murder, comes up.

In this book, set in 666 AD, she is called to an Abbey on the far west coast of Ireland to investigate the murder of a young woman. She has been found hung from the well rope in the Abbey's well, naked and beheaded. No one claims to be able to identify the body without the head and no one has reported a woman missing in the near vicinity. Fidelma is called in to investigate and try to figure out who the girl is and who killed and left her in such a ghastly way.

That's the main plot. The subplot involves Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk who adheres to the Roman Catholic tradition and usually acts as Fidelma's sidekick in her investigations, providing a counterpoint to her theological beliefs and the slightest hint of love interest. On the sea voyage to the Abbey, the ship she is on discovers a Gaulish ship floating abandoned at sea, with a missal Fidelma has given to Eadulf in one of the cabins. She had left him in Rome and is beside herself with worry, especially after finding blood on the deck of the ship.

The Sister Fidelma series is generally pretty good. The early ones are a little spotty in the strength of the plot lines and Tremayne has an irritating tendency to explain Fidelma's credentials more than is needed, but essentially they read well and are interesting. The historical detail is fascinating without intruding too much on the action. I'm looking forward to finding a few more of these.

Posted by Deb English at June 28, 2004 06:45 PM