Jan 12, 2012

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first in Ellis Peters’ long series of medieval mysteries. The year is 1137, and our sleuth, Brother Cadfael, is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey. When a fellow monk by the name of Brother Columbanus falls ill, he’s taken in a pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well in North Wales and returns cured. The cure is attributed to St Winefride herself, who Columbanus claims has told him in a vision she wishes her remains to be moved to Shrewsbury Abbey. The Abbot and a small party (which includes the Welsh-speaking Brother Cadfael) accordingly travel to the village of Gwytherin in Wales to claim the saint’s relics; needless to say, this doesn’t go down too well with the local community. Tempers rise, and murder is the result. It’s up to the observant Brother Cadfael and to Sioned, a local young woman, to find out what really happened before an innocent man is made to pay.

There’s plenty to enjoy in A Morbid Taste for Bones, but to me the best thing about this mystery novel was Brother Cadfael himself. He is, as Kiirstin so well put it, “a comfortable, comforting hero who makes the story worth reading”. He’s a worldly man who took religious vows rather late in his life and had the opportunity to travel and get to know all sorts of people; he’s a challenger of preconceptions; and he’s a tolerant and quietly subversive man. Plus, you’ve got to love a monk who says,
“Both men and women partake of the same human nature, Huw. We both bleed when we’re wounded. That’s a poor, silly woman, true, but we can show plenty of poor, silly men. There are women as strong as any of us, and as able.”
Much to my surprise, Brother Cadfael reminded me of none other than Nanny Ogg from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. In fact, the tone of the book was slightly reminiscent of Pratchett’s Lancre witches books: they share a deep understanding of how people work; an ability to capture the pulse of small communities; and central characters who are non-judgemental and appreciate the nuances and complexities involved in both local politics and personal relationships.

I was very impressed with how well Peters managed to capture the intricacies of community life in such a short novel. Brother Cadfael’s major ally in Gwytherin is Sioned, an intelligent and capable young woman whose difficult position as the daughter of an influential landowner who is in love with an indentured servant is very well illustrated. Similarly, the political angle was handled with intelligence and sensitivity: there are of course major implications to an Abbot from England coming to take away the bones of an obscure Welsh saint. The plot of A Morbid Taste for Bones (and also the solution to the mystery) is very much concerned with politics and power struggles within monastic life and their effects on medieval society.

Another thing Peters illustrates very well is the fact that religion and social life were deeply intermingled in the Middle Ages. The worldly Brother Cadfael is not above using belief to suit his purposes, and the novel’s final chapters are surprisingly sceptic-friendly. But this is all done in a way that isn’t condescending to most characters’ deep faith, though that could very easily have been the case.

Over the past year and a half I’ve had several starts and stops with historical mysteries: I tried quite a few series that I just didn’t care about enough to stick with. After all these attempts, it’s lovely to find one I’m truly excited about. I can’t wait to read Brother Cadfael’s next adventure.

They read it too: A Book a Week, Rhapsody in Books, A Striped Armchair, A Lifetime of Books, Tip of the Iceberg

(You?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

26 comments:

  1. I just love this series. You have so much great Medieval reading ahead. I never tire of Brother Cadfael. These are good on audio too.

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  2. Yay! Brother Cadfael is the first historical sleuth I came across who made me fall in love with the genre. And historical mysteries is still my favourite genre:) There's also a tv series which was pretty good as well. I also hope you do read some of Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew mysteries which are also really good.

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  3. Oh now this takes me back. I can remember watching it on television as a kid. I didn't realise there were books too. I presume the series was based on them.

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  4. I realized that practically not blogging for almost a year last year made me less knowledgeable about really good books/series (both old and new) that are out there. I've yet to comment on your lovely book reviewed the other day and now this!

    And gee, the setting feels like The Name of the Rose :)

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  5. I love this series too. I love the political background and the insights into medieval medicine.

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  6. Nice review, Ana! I have a Cadfael book in my collection, and after reading your review, I want to pick it up and read it soon. Have you read 'The Name of the Rose' by Umberto Eco? It is also set in a monastery and is a murder mystery and is one of my favourite books. It has Brother William as the main character.

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  7. I have this book here and am now looking even more forward to reading it after your review.
    How about M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth? I love that character and the way he treats everyone equally nice, be it a man a woman, child or animal.

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  8. This does sound rather interesting, and the fact that the monk is a bit of a skeptic really intrigues me. It seems like this might be a series that I could get into. I did have good results wit the first book of the Franklin series, but the second wasn't to my liking at all. It's too bad, because it seemed to hold such promise! Great review today, Ana! I will be looking forward to this one!

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  9. This series has been on list for a good minute and I haven't gotten to it yet. It sounds so good; it may finally find its way to the top soon.

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  10. "The year is 1137..." <---Okay, I'm now convinced this is "too scary" territory for me. But this is an Ana review, so of course, I continue reading the review. And now, I'm thinking, "How soon can I get my hands on this?!!"

    Oh Ana, Ana, Ana, whatever am I to do with you?!! ;)

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  11. I love this series! The setting and genre are similiar to The Name of the Rose, but the Eco book is a more difficult read. The Peters series is more of a cozy, comfort read to me.

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  12. Ooh, this sounds fantastic, and I do love me a good medieval mystery. I used to read the Sister Fidelma books a while back, mostly because my grandmother lent them to me, but this sounds far better than those.

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  13. I keep hearing great things about Brother Cadfael, so I will have to add this to the wish list!

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  14. I've been wanting to read this series, and your review makes it sound like something I would like to read indeed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  15. I think I read a Cadfael mystery or two when I was in college, but I never really got into them. I'm not sure why though because I think I liked them well enough. It was probably that I was overwhelmed with choices at the time and feeling I had to sample every author and so never settled in and read a lot of any of them. I know I've seen a few episodes of the TV show and liked those, so maybe I'll revisit the books one day as I know our mystery (especially historical mystery) tastes are so similar.

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  16. Ooh, now that I am almost done with Marcus Didius Falco, maybe I'll try Cadfael. I've heard mixed reviews and quite honestly, wasn't sure I wanted to read a historical mystery series with a main character being a religious figure. But maybe I should give it a go!

    I wish I could refer you to the Falco series as quality historical fiction but I'm not sure you'd enjoy it. I think you could try the first couple of books and see how they go, though!

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  17. I am not sure if I have read any of this series by her. Certainly they have been around for a little while, and very popular when I worked in bookstores. I don't think I have though, which surprises me. You give it such a good review, I'm surprised I have missed them.

    I have been reading CJ Sansom's Tudor mysteries, and Candace Robb's York medieval mysteries (when I can find them). Are you going to try to read the Cadfael series in order, or as you find them?

    Oh, and Hamish MacBeth is fun!! I am enjoying that series.

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  18. I've been meaning to read these forever--I loved the TV series the books are based on. Brother Cadfael ftw!

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  19. Hooray, another Cadfael convert! :-) I'm not a huge mystery/crime reader, but I love these books. I like them because, as you say, Ellis is so good at describing medieval society. She isn't over simplistic, and she ties the reality of the medieval world into her stories. It's clever, because if she didn't do this so well Cadfael would be an anachronism. As it is he has just enough of the medieval mindset about him to seem real, even with his views on gender politics and faintly Anglican religious beliefs!

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  20. I ve not read any of these ana strangely was in second hand shop the other day and saw a lot of this series and wondered what it was like ,I ve not seen the tv series either ,all the best stu

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  21. I've always been intrigued to read some of the books concerning Brother Cadfael, and your review has only interested me more!

    My dad actually has one of the books but a random one from the middle of the series I think. He bought it because one of the characters in it has the same family name as us which he thought was really fun.

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  22. Beth F: Maybe I'll give one of them a try on audio, if I can find it. I've been meaning to give audio books another chance for ages.

    Sakura: I need to try the Susanna Gregory series! It does sound right up my alley.

    Vivienne: Yes, it was. I'm quite curious about it, though I heard they made many changes.

    Lightheaded: One day I WILL read The Name of the Rose :P

    Jill: No medicine yet on the first one, but I'm glad to know I have that to look forward to!

    Vishy: I haven't, no, though I watched the movie ages ago and have been meaning to for ages. Someday!

    Caroline: I hadn't tried those yet, but I do keep hearing nice things about them.

    Zibilee: Sorry to hear about the second Franklin book! I didn't hate the first or anything, but it didn't grab me enough to make me want to carry on.

    Amy: A whole minute, eh? ;) Sorry; I imagine that's a typo but I couldn't resist :P

    Debi: I'm completely sure you wouldn't find these scary in the least. Trust me!

    Amy: Yes, I've been told the Eco is a bit of a challenge, though it does sound worth the effort.

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  23. I have looked at this series several times but it is so long.. And, it still makes me sad you didn't enjoy Jacqueline Winspear and Ariana Franklin...

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  24. I'm another fan--I started reading them when there were only three book in the series, and so was never daunted by how many books there were.

    I found as the series went on that my interest was wanning somewhat, but I still have them all, and am now thinking of a re-read....

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  25. Oh, hooray for Brother Cadfael! Isn't he wonderful? I'm so glad you liked this. I'm up to The Leper of St. Giles and quite looking forward to it, once I get my hands on it. They're such interesting little books, not too difficult to read but fascinating and I think there's more to them than meets the eye. Just like Cadfael, perhaps...

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  26. I discovered this series and read them all in one great gulp one winter about a decade ago. I envy you being at the very start of it--it's kind of like living the week before Christmas for a while!

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