In A.D. 664, King Oswy of Northumbria has convened a synod at Whitby to hear debate between the Roman and Celtic Christian churches and decide which shall be granted primacy in his kingdom. At stake is much more than a few disputed points of ritual; Oswy's decision could affect the survival of either church in the Saxon kingdoms.
When the Abbess Etain, a leading speaker for the Celtic church, is found murdered, suspicion falls upon the Roman faction. In order to diffuse the tensions that threaten to erupt into civil war, Oswy turns to Sister Fidelma of the Celtic Church (Irish and an advocate for the Brehon Court) and Brother Eadulf of the Roman church (from east Anglia and of a family of hereditary magistrates) to find the killer. But as further murders occur and a treasonous plot against Oswy matures, Fidelma and Eadulf soon find themselves running out of time.
This immensely appealing launch of a new series is set in seventh-century Ireland, which in Tremayne's rendering is a golden age of enlightenment and of total equality for women. Such narrative stumbling blocks as an abundance of stereotypical characters and much more dynastic trivia, ecclesiastical and secular history than can be absorbed are offset by the vigorous, intriguing puzzle posed by a series of murders and by Sister Fidelma, the tale's brilliant and beguiling heroine. An ecclesiastical conclave to settle major divisions between the Roman and Celtic branch of Christianity is held at Whitby in 664. When a major proponent of the Celtic way, the Abbess of Kildare, is murdered, Sister Fidelma, a fellow Celtic follower and legally trained scholar, is asked to investigate. She is paired with her ideological opposite, Brother Eadulf, on the Roman side, who is shrewd, highly educated and immediately smitten with the outspoken sister. The intellectual and physical sparks that are ignited between these two clerics (in an age before celibacy) light up the pages, and when two monks are killed and the malevolence thickens, the book becomes difficult to put down. It is reassuring to read that Sister Fidelma and Brother Eadulf will reappear... next time in Rome.
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History laced through a thought provoking plot
In this day when the 24 hour news cycle is filled with people who routinely assert opinion as fact, it is compelling to read a book written fifteen years ago about a time fourteen hundred years ago when exactly the same problem was the case. It also is interesting to note how much the politics that underlie religion pushed all of society then just as now. Peter Tremayne does a lovely job of bringing history to light and interlaces a compelling mystery through it all. The themes are well chosen and the characters brightly rendered. I can't wait to read the next book in this series.