Sunday, January 01, 2012

Chalice of Blood: A Mystery of Ancient Ireland by Peter Tremayne

Sister Fidelma, a dalaigh, or advocate of the Brehon courts, and her leman, the Saxon Brother Eadulf, have been arguing and upset over the news that Fidelma no longer feels the same commitment to the religious faith of Christianity that she once felt, and that her apparent dedication to it actually came from the fact that such a religious turn would be better for her acceptance as a dalaigh outside of the Irish courts. And now that her star has risen and she is accepted far outside of the court of ColgĂș, her brother, who is King of Muman, she feels that she should leave the body of the faith and become a simple worshipper rather than a member of the clergy.

This has thrown her lover, Eadulf, into a tizzy. He feels that this would mean either she or he would have to leave the other behind, as being unequally yoked is something anathema to the Christian Religion, and wonders what sort of future the two of them, and their daughter, would have together without the tie of being both religious clergy (this being before the rule of celibacy for priests was widespread and expected among the Christian clergy).

But then, they are summoned to a small abbey named Lios Mor, on an island just off the coast of Scotland. The small abbey is set to become a great church, bolstered by a large gift by the local lord, Lady Eithné, who has made the gift in honor of her son, now known as the Brother Donnchad, who has recently returned from the holy land with many books and scrolls which he collected to show his faith and to enhance the Abbey's consequence and learning.

But now Brother Donnchad is dead, slain in his room with the door locked from the inside, and no way for someone to slip in or leave after the door was shut behind them. So how did he die, and who might have killed him? Fidelma and Eadulf discover that Brother Donnchad made the trip to the Holy Land with his brother, leaving behind a former servant who had joined the order with him and become his "soul friend", a kind of confessor who is supposed to listen to a brother's spiritual concerns and keep him on the straight and narrow with regards to his faith.

But this former servant was considered not an adequate soul friend for Brother Donnchad after he returned from the Holy Land, and there were things that his fellow brother didn't understand- he just knows that something was troubling him deeply- deeply enough that he was almost suicidal about it- but not enough to kill himself.

And his fellow brothers, the other monks, he either did not confide in, nor do they understand what so troubled Donnchad. But the monk who will be the successor to the leadership of the Abbey is eager for the matter to be swept under the rug and shrugged off, even if that means the wrong murderer is apprehended, or it is determined that Brother Donnchad committed suicide, even in the absence of evidence for such a thing.

Or does someone have it in for the Abbey monks? When Eadulf is nearly killed, he is told he was struck down by a shifting beam in the construction of the new church, but even he knows that isn't true. Things are changing at the Abbey, major things, and someone may be using that as an excuse to churn up trouble. So why is everyone so desirous of smoothing things over and not making waves. Why do people not want the true murderer of Brother Donnchad to be found?

I have been reading the Sister Fidelma series since the beginning, and I really have enjoyed it greatly, and so it was interesting to see it be taken in this new direction. For so long, Fidelma has been as much about the church as she was solving mysteries, and seeing her leave while acknowledging that she was never really that much into being a member of the church because of strong faith, but did it to be accepted, might end up pissing a lot of people off.

A whole lot of the assumptions about people who don't really believe or have faith because they can see the inherent contradictions in faith and in the words of the Bible and as preached by the church is sure to rub at least some readers the wrong way. But I did like the way that Fidelma and Eadulf's struggle was mirrored in that of the mystery they were solving. And let's be honest, Eadulf is worried that with Fidelma seeming to lose a good part of her faith, he is afraid that he will lose her as well. Now, that would be bad, because they work so well together, but they share more than faith-affection (if not love) and a child are not inconsiderable bonds.

This is something that can't be worked out in a single book, but I enjoyed the way that Peter Tremayne shook up the status quo in the series. It can be so easy, as both a writer and a reader, to fall into a rut, and keeping things fresh and new while keeping what makes the series great can be a struggle. For the moment, I remain hopeful about the direction of the series, and that the characters will eventually stay together and also show the strains in a relationship where one character believes or has faith much more strongly than the other.

I love this series, and continue to love it despite the curveball that the author threw to his readers here. Not everyone who loves this series is going to feel comfortable with the change, but I, for one, thing change can be good and refreshing. I can't wait to see where this goes and what happens next. Highly recommended, but be aware this is a significant change in the series for readers.

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