Abbess Helewise & Josse d'Acquin
(creator: Alys Clare)

Fortune Like the Moon cover
Abbess Helewise was the fourth abbess of the recently-completed Hawkenlye Abbey near Tonbridge in Kent. She had been abbess for five years when we first meet her. She had been appointed by Queen Eleanor in 1184 at the age of 32, and had "made up her mind that she would be the most efficient, most effective abbess that Hawkenlye had ever had". She "knew she suited the Abbey - false modesty was not one of Helewise's character traits - and she also knew that the Abbey suited her." She was well aware that "pride had no place in a nun" but, "if pride led her to doing the job well, Helewise concluded, then proud she would be."

She had red-gold hair and a face with "strong features, with well-marked eyebrows, large grey eyes, and a wide mouth that looked as if it smiled readily". She was "one whose wide brow and penetrating eyes spoke so clearly of intelligence" but who usually looked "calm, controlled, slightly aloof". She was tall and broad-shouldered and had "a surprisingly square and strong-looking hand". She was very shrewd and "was very good at looking at things practically". She "did most things quietly but with a serene grace of which she was unaware", but she could be stubborn too. She had once been happily married with two sons, but had lost her husband, Ivo. "She is a good woman, honourable, hard-working, devout."

Alys Clare is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Harris (1944- ), who has published some twenty-five novels. She grew up and still lives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, but spends part of each year in a remote cottage in Brittany, from where she can find and research French settings. She graduated from Keele University with a degree in English and pyschology, then took a Certificate in Archaeology at the University of Kent. She became a full-time writer after her first novel was published in 1990.

Her study in England overlooks a stretch of parkland with a little spring, and it is here, on the very spot where her house now stands, that she set her fictional Hawkenlye Abbey. She writes quickly, spending 4-6 weeks on each novel, but only after much preparation beforehand. The titles of the Abbess Helewise books all come from Carmina Burana, the lyrics written by a 12th century monk. She is married with two grown-up sons.

Fortune Like the Moon (1999)
Fortune Like the Moon starts with the discovery of the dead body of a young nun with her throat cut, who has apparently been raped. It is 1189, and King Richard I's mother, Queen Eleanor, had recently released all the criminals from prison in the king's name. Richard, concerned about the harm it might do him if one of them turned out to be the murderer, sends one his knights, Sir Josse d'Acquin, from France to investigate.

He joins with Abbess Helewise in tracking down the murderer, but soon another nun meets her death, but in a very different way, so Helewise is sure that it isn't the work of the one murderer. She has to stay at the Abbey, but Josse is free to do the legwork. It is he who works out who the two victims really are, but she who understands the reasons behind trhe crimes. One of them, before she entered the convent, had been put off by the idea of physical love. "The realisation," explains Helewise to Josse, "that, from the very day they join us, they will for ever more sleep alone, comes to some women I assure you, as nothing but a vast relief".

Although the nun's wounds are realistically described ("I may not know much," the infirmarer Sister Euphemis tells Josse, "but I do know the female genitalia. I was a midwife, afore I entered the cloister, and I've seen more vaginas than you've had hot suppers... Nobody'd raped her, not then, not ever"), it sometimes reads read more of a romantic novel than a who-dunnit, as in conversations like:
' "Lady, could you, do you think, love me?"
She had made no answer,merely cast down those great eyes in a delicate gesture of modesty. "I love you, Gunnora," he had rushed on, "I have always loved you! Will you agree to marry me?"
Then she had looked up. Met his desperate eyes with her own, In which, for a split-second, he had seen what was, surely, an unlikely emotion.
Triumph.'

Josse soon forms a good working relationship with Helewise, Indeed, by the end of the book, she has even started calling him Josse rather than Sir Josse. And he begins to realise "what a good place Hawkenlye Abbey was". It all falls well short of Sister Fidelma or even Brother Cadfael, but makes quite an interesting, if undemanding, story.

Ashes of the Elements (2000)
Ashes of the Elements has a stronger story than the previous book. It starts with Abbess Helewise finding the body of a man who had been killed by a flint-headed spear. Could it be the mysterious Forest People who were responsible? Sir Josse d'Acquin travels over from his almost completed new English manor house in the Weald to help her find out. It is some two years since they had last met, so she is back to calling him Sir Josse again. After another death, and the possible involvement of two girls from the abbey, who take to mysteriously disappearing, Helewise and Josse realise that the solution to the mystery lies in the forest itself.

Characters who appear include King Richard I's mother, Queen Eleanor, who has a (not altogether convincing) gossipy chat to Helewise about her son, the King, who has just got married: "I knew as soon as I saw Berengaria (his new wife), that she was not for him ... Richard has been King of England for almost two years, and, but for four months he has been out of the country .... Crusading, always crusading!"

Then there's the rather stock figure of the incompetent Sheriff of Tonbridge, and there's a mysterious robed woman called Domina, who has frightening supernatural powers, and is one of the Forest People. When she looked at Helewise, Helewise felt as if "her very brain were being penetrated. By two thin beams of white light, which seemed to emanate drom the Domina's extraordinary eyes and pierce through Helewise's pupils. It was a ghastly sensation". It is she who had held a girl down in a weird forest ceremony in which the girl seemed to have been raped in quick succession by five different men. But, as Domina pointed out, this was their way of limiting their numbers. Every two hundred moons, "a ripe virgin is chosen, who is the recipient of the seed of the tribe". For the girl, in her sixteenth year, it is a great honour. Josse "could scarcely believe that here in this forest .... an ancient people still lived who worshipped the old goddesses and gods, whose lives were ruled by the moon and the sun. Who had not, it seemed, been touched by the least fingertip of late twelfth-century civilisation".

The forest itself is frighteningly described. Josse, alone there, comes across two trees. He "was hit with a devastating sadness, a mourning, almost, for the vast dying thing (a tree) that lay at his feet". Then he moved over to a smaller oak: "This time there was sorrow, there was anger. Someone had killed this tree deliberately. And the forest was furious .'... He stood in awe of some vast natural power, but it was not an evil force". And there is strange music: "a humming sound, rather lovely at first, sweet, like singing. Or chanting perhaps. But then as if the strange music had slid into a scale that no human ever used, it began to chill the very soul", and Josse began to feel that "there were people out there, watching him from their hiding places, deep-set eyes penetrating the shadows, lighting on him, knowing him ...." All this is well done.

Relations between Josse and Helewise remain strictly formal, except for one night when he has to keep the injured abbess warm while they are out in the forest. So "he gently turned her on to her right side, the front of her body to the fire, and lay down beside her. She was well wrapped-up ,,,, nevertheless he felt that he was committing a sin. 'I've got to keep her warm,' he said aloud to no-one in particular. 'I'm doing it the best way I can, by building the fire and by the heat of my own body. But I -'
'What? Swear I'm not enjoying it?'
He grinned into the darkness, Well, perhaps he was, just a little".

Recommended as quite a good read - but you don't have to take it too seriously.

The Tavern in the Morning (2000)
The Tavern in the Morning gets off to a good dramatic start with a man being poisoned by a piece of pie at Goody Anne's inn in Tonbridge. Josse d'Acquin, a regular vistor to the inn, discovers wolf's bane in the remains of the pie, and learns that among all the strangers at the inn that day, there was a charming, handsome nobleman who had also asked for that same dish. Jesse sets off on the nobleman's trail, but ends up knocked out by a blow on the head.

He wakes up to find he is being hidden away and tended to by a 7-year-old boy, called Ninian. Then, right at the end of the chapter, he looks up to find that someone else had arrived: "The figure standing at the door wasn't Ninian. it was a woman." End of chapter. Then the next chapter starts: "A very beautiful woman". As you might expect! Her name turns out to be Joanna, and he later learns that she and her son (?) are fleeing from that same nobleman, Denys de Courtenay.

Jesse rides off to get medical help from Hawkenlye Abbey (where Abbess Helewise is struggling to recover from a fever) and to seek Helewise's advice. While he lies ill, Courtenay himself comes to see if the girl whom he calls his niece has taken refuge at the abbey. Helewise was not impressed by his unctuous charm, and, for a split second, "saw something infinitely sinister and cunning in his dark eyes". She discovers that Joanna was in fact his second cousin - not his niece, and so would be free to marry her. So what is his real motive for pursuing her?

Jesse follows in his trail, helped and encouraged by Joanna with whom he forms a close (and very explicit and convincing) sexual relationship. It all makes an engrossing story, made all the more so by a horrific flashback to what had happened to Joanna at the Royal Court when she was only sixteen.

The story holds the interest throughout and is enlivened by some nice moments of humour as when the dastardly de Courtenay finds that the two thugs he has hired cannot stand up to Josse: "What has become of the honest serving man?" he asks.

The ending is not entirely convincing, but it all makes an enjoyable, if quite undemanding, read.

Chatter of the Maidens (2001)
Chatter of the Maidens tells how, in April 1192, Hawkenlye Abbey is profoundly disturbed by the arrival of a new nun, Sister Alba and her two much younger sisters, Meriel, aged 16 and Berthe, aged 14. Recently orphaned Alba explains that she had to leave her convent at Ely to look after her sisters. She says she came to Hawkenlye because "she had heard tell of the miraculous shrine of Our Lady .... where the holy water was freely given to the sick in mind and body, and which was fast becoming a major pilgrimage site". But she soon makes herself highly unpopular all round, and, after lying to Helewise, literally hits out at her. So she has to be locked up in the abbey's punishment cell.

Meanwhile, Sir Josse has been taken seriously ill with blood poisoning, and is carried to the abbey for treatment. Then a dead body is discovered and Sister Alba escapes from her cell. Helewise, feeling it is her responsibility to find out more about Alba's background, sets out on a long and dangerous journey to Ely and the surrounding fen country, where she visits a lonely, desolate convent with only four nuns left. The abbess there tells her, "We receive few visitors, as you will readily understand. Those who do persevere through the marsh, the mists and the biting flies all say the same thing. How do we cope with living out here? .... We always say the same words, That God has called us to this lonely, desolate place in order that His precious light shall illuminate the darkness, and that when He calls, we obey". It is here that Helewise discovers there is much more to Alba's background than she could ever have supposed. It makes for an engrossing story with plenty of action.

It's all written with a gentle sense of humour, as when an embarrassed Josse finds himself trying to explain the Immaculate Conception to inquisitive 14-year-old Berthe, or when Helewise, unused to riding long distances, arrives at a small convent for her first overnight stay and realises that "it wasn't going to be easy to be dignified, when the only way she could walk was with her legs bowed out wide enough to circle a beer barrel".

In this story it is Helewise who gets out and about, and Josse who has to be left back at the abbey, trying to work things out. As he modestly points out, "The Abbess is the brains, I am merely the brawn .... On this occasion, I fear she had to be both brain and brawn". As another character tells them, they make a good team. Even so, they do not always agree about everything. Helewise is shocked when she and Josse come across two teenagers, one of them her charge, young Meriel, making love, but Josse "saw them again in his mind's eye, that handsome. loving pair. There was love, right enough, he thought". But Helewise could only grunt, "Humph!"

It makes an enjoyable story. Recommended.

The Faithful Dead (2002)
The Faithful Dead begins in the autumn of 1192 with the death of an elderly pilgrim, followed by the discovery of the decomposing body of a naked young man, killed by an expert hand. Meanwhile Prince John, together with his seer John Dee, known as the Magister, is trying to track down one Galbertius Sidonius who, it turns out, is looking for Josse. This all makes a gripping start, but then there is a very long (over long) flashback to Outremer (a large area including the present-day Israel and Lebanon) back in 1148 (this unfortunately takes up as much as a third of the book) which explains how Josse's father had been fighting in the Crusades when he had been given a magnificent jewel, the Eye of Jerusalem, that had magical protective and healing powers.

The Eye had, we are told, originally been given to Nebuchadrezzar, King of Judah, by the Persian King Cyrus! The crusades are realistically described, so all this might have made quite an interesting story in itself, but it is told at such length that it distorts the shape of the narrative and distracts attention from what is happening to Josse and the abbey, where Josse's younger brother Yves had unexpectedly turned up.

Then, when Josse himself gets possession of the Eye, its magical powers present the author with considerable problems if she is stop the whole story sounding like a fairy tale. In the end, Josse hands over the Eye to Abbess Helewise. She tries reducing its evil emanations by placing it under the altar, but finds that it still "lived up to its reputation. It lowered fevers. Or, of course, it might have been Sister Euphemia's endless efforts, her patience and skill. Sister Euphemia, that was, guided by and acting for God." Earlier on, though, it had been clearly described as having strange and wonderful powers of its own. Of course, if it really had these powers, it would reduce abbey life and its (less effective) healing spring to nonsense. So, in the next three books, we get no further mention of the Eye. Indeed when the few outstanding treasures of the abbey are listed, it does not even get a mention. The author seems to have found it more convenient to forget all about it, until she eventually finds a need to resurrect it in Heart of Ice.

A Dark Night Hidden (2003)
A Dark Night Hidden starts in the winter of 1192 (the year in which King Richard was taken prisoner) with a particularly vicious rape of a tortured woman by her prison gaoler. She is in prison because of persecution by Father Micah, a harsh new priest who is sent to minister at Hawkenlye Abbey. Heretics, in his eyes, "are an abomination in the sight of God.
They must be cast into the purifying flames, every last man, woman and child". He makes his way around the abbey, criticising almost everyone, but steering clear of the small leper house "which nobody (including the nuns who served there) entered if they expected to leave again".

He "reserved the greater part of his spleen for the home for fallen women" which was "the area of her responsibility in which Helewise felt the most satisfaction". But not Father Micah. When one of the women held up her baby for him to bless, he called out, "Begone from my sight, harlot! And take that spawn of Satan with you". You can see why he gets murdered.

His main victims are a group of Cathars from the continent. One of these, a badly tortured woman, her forehead branded and her back covered in infected weals from a brutal flogging, takes refuge at the abbey. Sir Josse d'Aquin is one of those who wants to help them flee the country. Helewise appreciates "what a fine figure of a man he was. Stop it, she ordered herself firmly. Stop looking at him like that". And she does. But she finds it hard to agree with him about helping heretics: "Heretics say terrible things, Sir Josse, They claim that Christ is not divine! .... They scorn the clergy and say that each and every man and woman may address the deity personally .... Heresy must not be allowed to spread. Because it will lead directly to men and women dying in a state of sin".

Life inside the abbey is well described, but a whole section is devoted to the forest people and their pagan rites, and tells how newcomer Joanna (who was the mother of Josse's child, although he did not know this) is initiated, after being visited by a man in a bear mask who had a "strange face that was sometimes a muzzle thickly covered in dark brown fur, sometimes the features of a man with delight in his dark eyes that sparkled with firelight. Which was peculiar, she thought afterwards, since he had stood with his back to the flames."

The initiation ceremony, in which she has to find her way, blindfolded, into the middle of the Rollwright Stones, while some 500 fellow pagans hope she will make it, doesn't sound any too likely, either. Then they all go off in pairs to "find a quiet corner in which to lie together, honouring the Great Mother in an act of love". And the bear-man comes back for Joanna. "When at last the moment came and he entered into her, it was, as she had known all along it would be, as a man". Still, in a way it must have come as quite a relief. How all this love-making ties in with the draconian family planning method described in Ashes of the Elements is not explained.

The forest people lack credibility. In addition, the narrative unfolds in a disjointed sort of way. and the episodic treatment does not always hold the interest. Then, right at the end, there is an incomprehensible map, attempting to show the spread of heresy in Europe. Not one of the best books in the series.

Whiter Than the Lily (2004)
Whiter Than the Lily sees Josse d'Acquin meeting some new friends, an older wealthy man, Ambrose Ryemarsh, married to a beautiful young girl, Galiena. They desperately want children, and Josse suggests that a visit to Hawkenlye Abbey, with its magic spring and expert infirmarer, Sister Euphemia, might prove helpful. So Galiena sets off - but disaster strikes on the way.

Josse feels compelled to investigate, even though this involves more than one visit to the dangerous marshes where, at a place known by outsiders as Dreadfall, a savage and brutal pagan race still survive, led by a violent chief. with the help of a seer with strange frightening eyes: "Silvery, luminous, as if they were lit from within by some unearthly radiance". It is not too obvious why Josse risks his life there: "He was beginning to think he had made a bad mistake in coming", but then discovers a drugged and chain girl who (of course) he feels he must rescue.

But, as the plot gets more and more convoluted, Josse thinks, "I am fumbling in the dark. There is so much that I do not know - that I believe is being deliberately obfuscated and kept from me". Then he finds he been suspecting the wrong person of being a murderer.

Interestingly, for the first time, we get some information about how Helewise came to be a nun: "When I was widowed," she confides in Ambrose, "the options were few and little to my liking. I had not thought to take the veil, for I had no desire for the limited life that I believed would be my lot behind convent walls. But then I heard of Hawkenlye Abbey, and I learned about the principles upon which it was founded, and I thought that it was where I wanted to be. I was admitted to the congregation, I grew to love the place, I learned the meaning of a truly satisfying day's work, I discovered that God had a plan for me all along, and ever since I have done my utmost to follow it". But what were those principles that so attracted her?

There is quite a lot of action in this story, which begins well, but the latter part, where the emphasis is on Josse rather than Helewise, gets rather drawn-out.

Girl in a Red Tunic (2005)
Girl in a Red Tunic starts in November 1193. The country is impoverished by the cost of paying a high ransom for King Richard who is held hostage. The Abbess Helewise is struggling to keep the abbey going when her elder son Leofgar reappears after an absence of 20 years, with his distraught wife and now mute little boy. What has happened to reduce them to such a condition? They do not want to explain, but then a man is found strangled and Leofric and his family slip away from the abbey at night and go into hiding. Leofric is suspected of the murder.

Helewise and Josse set off to the Old Manor, Leofric's house and her old home, but there is no sign of them there. Helewise is reminded of her own past when she first met and married her late husband, Ivo. She was only fourteen at the time but very much in love with him. This is another of those long flashbacks (36 pages) that really do break up the flow of the narrative. It includes not only some essential information, but digressions such as an explanation that when Helewise's younger sister Aelis, then aged ten, grows up, her "big-hearted and apparently endless well of love (for animals) will be turned to humans when, after giving birth to her one and only child, she will set about opening her home to foundlings and proceeding to give food, warmth and the hope of a chance in life to many who would otherwise have died young". What, surprisingly, we have not yet been told is how Ivo died. Now that is a flashback that would be interesting. As is a later flashback of only four pages, when we hear how the murderer's past provided his motivation.

The author can be very gritty and explicit, as when she describes a man's dead body being fed to the pigs, or an attempted rape scene, but when Helewise and Ivo make love, "she finds the sight of his hairy chest, flat belly and obvious strength very arousing ... but Helewise is unafraid and she stares at his manhood, reaching out her hand to touch. As her fingers begin to caress, Ivo lets out a moan of desire ...."

Jesse's favourite expression "God's boots!" was a new one on me, but the author is a historian, and usually gets this sort of thing right. Similarly, Helewise is given what sounds like genuine contemporary contraceptive advice by her old nurse, Elena, just before she gets married: "It's said that a poultice of hemlock applied to a man's testicles prevents the shedding of fertile seed, but I've known that fail and in my opinion it's not to be relied on, besides being a mite unconfortable. For the man, anyway!" Other "suggestions are reasonably acceptable: wearing a crown of myrtle to delay conception, or chewing raspberry leaves to make the womb 'clench', whatever that means, and thus render itself unwelcoming. Secreting walnuts in her bodice, one nut for every month that she wishes to delay conception".

In the end, Helewise herself gets kidnapped, and there is an exciting rescue. However, the explanation that after a wicked old philanderer had been "robbed of my manhood" in a riding accident, he did not want to lose face so always arranged for his faithful servant to take his place at the critical moment so that "the girls were not heard to complain", does not sound too probable.

Heart of Ice (2006)
Heart of Ice starts with a gripping and frightening description of how the plague is brought to Hawkenlye from a remote part of Africa. It is February 1194, and intensely cold. It is only when a thaw sets in, that the body of a murdered young man is discovered in what had been the frozen lake. Abbess Helewise sends a message about it to Tonbridge sheriff Gervase de Gifford, and also her trusted old friend Sir Josse d'Acquin to "ask, if he is not too busy, if he will kindly pay us a visit". He never is too busy, of course. You wonder how his estate survives so well without him. But then the plague strikes.

Searching desperately for help, Helewise has "a snatch of memory, nothing more, from, what, a year and a half ago?". She has remembered that on a hidden ledge behind the altar she had placed the Eye of Jerusalem, that amazing magical healing jewel given her by Josse, that had already been successfully tried out "when there was that ourtbreak of fever a year ago last autumn". Why on earth she had never given it a thought since then is not explained.

Helewise herself sets about helping to nurse the victims, then she too goes down with the plague. The Eye, though, does not seem to help her - or indeed anyone else. Sister Euphemia, the experienced old infimarer (with particular expertise at nursing old men, examining murderered bodies, and advising on women's troubles) finds her energy and talents stretched to the limits. But she can't do anything for Helewise, so young Sister Tiphaine, the herbalist, sets off back to her old home ground in the forest to enlist the help of Joanna, who had made her new home there and been initiated as one of the forest people..

Joanna herself had been away, with her toddler daughter Meggie, on what sounds a highly organised and demanding sort of mystical training course for pagan healers that had taken her over the sea, first to "Mona's Isle" then on to Brittany. It all gets very weird and mysterious, and comes complete with tribal ceremonies in which the people re-enacted their past and "screamed their defiance and their pride". Joanna is given a new name, Beith, and is solemnly told: "Our great task is to search for the sublime, to delve into what is secret and arcane and, by so doing, achieve the uplifting that is our destiny."

Some of the pagan ideas sound strangely modern, as when she was taught "the extraordinary concept that a person's body may be made ill because their mind is in distress'. But she is also taught the use of magical drugs "that give insight and, in a lucky few, open the window on the future and bestow the gift of prophecy". She ends up on her first "soul journey", floating above the land of Lyonesse and seeing what happened in the past. All this is described at great length (42 pages), and the author obviously takes it very seriously. Indeed even Abbess Helewise hears an inner voice telling her: "All gods are one god and behind them is the truth."

Josse had been told that a female descendant of his would have great powers with the Eye, so Joanna is eventually persuaded to let her 6 month old daughter (whom Josse had fathered) to dip the Eye in healing water when "the water began to shine. As if a miniscule fragment of a bright star had fallen into it - or perhaps was reflected in it - for the space of a few heartbeats the water emitted a brilliant light. It faded, quite slowly, but when it had gone the water had changed; it was purer, clearer and brighter" - and it's magical powers had been restored. Sister Euphemia later "often asked herself whether that mysterious draught really had anything to do with their (the victims') recovery or whether it was simply that that the illness had run its course and at last left their racked bodies .... Rational thinking was all very well, however; the other part of Sister Euphemia, the one which knew that she had observed not one, but several miracles, put logic right out of mind and prompted her to go down in her knees and thank God for his mercy".

But it needs the help of Joanna herself to save Helewise, "She sees herself as just a channel through which people can be helped. "It is we who heal." her voices told her.
"Who are we?"
"We are the collective spirit of the people. We are the consciousness that was ancient even when the first stones were set up; the consciousness that awoke and greeted the first day, We are always here for those that seek us with the right mind; you have but to learn what that mind is and how to achieve it". And, we are told, "Joanna had spent a year doing just that.

So "standing in the recess where the Abbess lay dying. Joanna drew on all that she had been taught and sent out a silent cry to the spirits clustering around her to help her find the swiftly receding soul and bring it back". And you can guess what happens. "The power came in waves; one at the start was so strong that she felt as if a great jolt had flowed through her, jerking her like a puppet dancing on its strings. She heard them, sometimes she though she could see them. They chanted - quietly, hypnotically, continuously - and they wore white. In their hands they held rods tipped with quartz that looked very like her own. But the mighty strength that came pulsing out from them was as far removed from anything she had yet achieved as a puddle is from an ocean". All this romantic fantasy makes a strange contrast with the very down-to-earth descriptions of plague victims.

The murderer, a professional assassin, is identified, and even Prince John seems to have had a hand in it all. As the author admits in a postscript, there is no evidence to support this - but it is the sort of thing he might have done! Meanwhile, King Richard is welcomed back home again, and he and his mother, Queen Eleanor (Helewise's old friend), attend a special thanksgiving service at Hawkenlye Abbey.

This series of books seems to have run its course, and it's difficult to see where any further episodes could take us, unless either Abbess Helewise elopes with Josse (and they are both far too much in control of themselves to do this) or the pagan Forest Folk take over the Abbey with Joanna as the Great One in charge (you can't help feeling that the author might quite like this, but what would happen then to poor Helewise?). But it seems that at least three further Hawkenlye novels are in the pipeline, so presumably there'll be yet more of the same.

The Enchanter's Forest (2007)
The Enchanter's Forest is set in 1195. It gets off to quite an interesting start with Merlin's huge bones supposedly being discovered and his tomb made into a popular pilgrim attraction. So popular, in fact, that Abbess Helewise is worried that Hawkenlye Abbey will lose all its revenue, now that pilgrims are choosing to be healed at Merlin's tomb instead.

As she explains to Sir Josse d'Acquin, "We need the funds, you see ... If our benefactors choose to support a rival foundation, then with a huge and unfillable hole in our income and, far more crucially, without the needy, the lost, the sick and the desperate to care for, we shall no longer have a reason to exist and we are lost." They could, of course, have tried living a life of prayer and praise, but that is not what interests Helewise. She seems little concerned with such pious activities. She does not even seem to spend time caring for the nuns in her charge. She does not do all that much detection either.

Most of the story is taken up, not by her adventures, but those of Josse who sets off for Brittany in order to see what he hopes will be the true tomb of Merlin. Then he can come home and tell people that the newly found tomb in the forest near Hawkenlye must be a fake. It does not seem a very convincing motive for such a long and dangerous journey, as there is no possible proof that he could bring back with him.

However he is very happy to be accompanied by his one-time lover Joanna (who is now one of the magical "forest people") and Meggie, their two and a half year old daughter - and it is not long before they are having romantic nude swims and making love again. She admits to him that she has "lain with another since I lay with you", but as this was a bear man, perhaps it does not count. Josse reflects, "A man who could turn into a bear! No, no, no, it was just not credible.". How right he was! But odder things than this happen before the story ends.

Joanna still has magic powers and a "scrying bowl" in which she can see people who are far away, but why she makes so little use of it is not explained. Perhaps it was because of "the terrible, nauseous headache that always followed." But she can always pray to the trees: "Guard us, Lady of the Woods, she said silently, you whose powerful spirit is present in these graceful, silvery trees. Stay with us, please, and let no harm come to Josse, to Meggie or to me. Then she took the sharp knife from its sheaf on her belt and allowed seven drops of her blood to fall to the ground at the roots of the tree. She stood for a few moments, head bowed, her concentration profound. Then, feeling the warm flow of reassurance, she went back to Josse and Meggie." To her, even Meggie's imaginary friends, as she tells Josse, "are in all likelihood inhabitants of the spirit realm".

Meanwhile Helewise, back at the abbey and missing most of the action, "realised that, a considerable time spent in deep thought notwithstanding, she didn't seem to have come up with anything very helpful. Also that she had absolutely no idea of what to do next. I have spent far too much time on this already, she rebuked herself strongly. In order that my musings shall not be entirely wasted, I must worry my thoughts to a conclusion and then leave the matter alone and get on with my work." It all sounds very stilted.

There is some occasional exciting action, but it is difficult to feel involved with such unconvincing characters and unlikely events. And the ending of the book is quite ludicrous. Josse does not quite appear as King of the Fairies - but it is almost as silly as this. It's no wonder that Hodder & Stoughton decided against publishing any more books in this series, and the author had to find another publisher.

The Paths of the Air (2008)
The Paths of the Air starts in the late autumn of 1196. A secretive stranger arrives at the home of Sir Josse d'Acquin, who guesses that he is the servant of a returning Crusader. Josse allows him to stay in an outhouse, but after the sick man disappears one night, he seeks the assistance of his old friend, Abbess Helewise of Hawkenlye Abbey. Then a merchant and his boy find a savaged body beneath the trees of the forest fringe. Three Knights Hospitallers arrive on the trail of a runaway monk who turns out to be .... I won't give his identity away.

Unfortunately much of the interesting action is set in the past in crusading times at Outremer (that, according to the map provided, stretched all the way from the Dead Sea to Tarsus and included Cyprus) and, despite some lethal work with arrows, it does not make a very exciting story. All the emphasis is on Josse, with Helewise playing a very minor role, and the plot, complete with wandering Saracens as well as Crusaders, gets very confusing with the monk being hunted by as many as three different groups.

The author's historical research is put to good use when Sister Celise and Josse have to help a badly injured man who has an arrow sticking into his chest. "What should I do, so Josse?," she asks him. "I have never extracted an arrow before, although I did once deal with a spear wound."
"The problem is in getting the arrowhead out," he replied. "Too often men wrest at the shaft in panic and it breaks away. Then you have to probe around to make a path through the swollen tissue until you get to the arrowhead."
They find that "it was no minor wound that they were dealing with. Josse said, 'Sister, have you any tool with which to hold the sides of the wound apart?'
She opened her pouch and looked. 'Yes,' she replied, holding up an instrument like a pair of tongs, about the length of her hands and formed of a U-shaped bend of metal whose two blades had narrow, slightly flattened ends. 'If I hold the two blades tightly against each side of the arrow shaft and push them inside the wound, I can lever them apart when I reach the arrowhead so perhaps we shall be able to see how it is lying. If I then open the pincers along the wide side of the arrowheads, you will have an unimpeded channel through which to pull it out.' It sounded appalling. But he could think of no better idea and she, after all, was the healer."
But, unfortunately, the patient still died.

When Josse's horse returns to the abbey with blood on his neck, Helewise thinks, "Was Josse too hurt? Was he - oh surely not! - was he dead? No, no, he can't be!" How right she was! But it was a pity that his adventures were not a bit more gripping.

The books are now published by Severn Press, a niche company specializing in small print runs of hardbacks for the library market (not all the titles necessarily appear in paperback) - and you cannot help feeling that they are increasingly aimed at perhaps not-too-demanding library readers.

The Joys of My Life (2008)
The Joys of My Life starts in May 1199 when a party of five from Hawkenlye Abbey is summoned to the Ile d'Oleron in France by old Queen Eleanor who wants to discuss with Abbess Helewise the building of a chapel at Hawkenlye, to be dedicated to the well-being of the soul of her dear son, the late King Richard the Lionheart. Meanwhile Sir Josse d'Acquin receives secret orders of a very different kind that set him off on the trail of a group of mysterious knights rumoured to be devil worshippers and abusers of boys. There is even a possibility that King Richard had been one of them.

As Helewise heads for home, Josse follows the trail of the leader of the errant knights to Chartres, where at night in the shadows of the new cathedral he meets the last person he expects to find there: Joanna, the mother of his six-year-old daughter. She is one of the "Forest People" who fear that the building of the new cathedral may interfere with their Well of the Strong which "poured out its vital earth energy. To Joanna's people, this precious holy spot was the dwelling place of the Mother Goddess and for countless generations they had honoured her there, setting up her image in the form of a beautiful dark-wood statue of the fecund, heavily pregnant goddess." In the end, this statue finds its way to Hawkenlye, where Helewise decides to have the best of both worlds by hiding it in the crypt of her new chapel!

However, the emphasis at first is very much on Josse as he tries to uncover who the devil worshippers had been and what they had been up to. This is quite dramatic and certainly holds the interest, although, as Josse admits, "Richard might have had his faults, but descending to the level of a devil worshipper and child molester was surely too much to believe."

However, as soon as Joanna (who, we are told, had "received notification" that she was return to Chartres as she was one of the "Great Ones") appears, the plot becomes totally implausible, building up to a really absurd climax in which it is explained that Joanna "and the entity known as the Bear Man (the supernatural part-man part-bear with whom she has been sleeping when not making love to Josse !) gave up their essence .... and merged themselves in the come of power. It rose up to the heavens and drove deep down into the ground in that place that has always been sacred to us (the forest folk). The force that lies within the earth answered and opened up to admit them. Power is now great - greater than it has ever been- and nothing can destroy it. Now and for ever we and what we believe will stay there .... it will be there as long as the world lasts, even if the cathedral falls, the power will remain."

Meanwhile Josse is left happily looking after not only his young daughter but Joanna's older child, a teenaged boy who had had the same father as King Richard (!), and a new baby, fathered by Josse, that Joanna had had to leave behind her.

The very last chapter jumps 10 years ahead to a time when Helewise has not only given up being an abbess but abandons monastic life altogether. Instead she goes off to live with - guess whom?

This was meant to be the last book of a series that began so much better than it finished.

The Rose of the World (2011)
The Rose of the World is set in the autumn of 1210. A year previously, King John had been excommunicated - and now his men have come to Hawkenlye Abbey to take it over. Abbess Caliste, Helewise's successor, worries how she is to feed the nuns under her care, let alone conduct good works. Meanwhile, Helewise has moved into a single room in Josse's manor house - but, of course, they stlll don't sleep together. After a visit to St Edmund's Chapel, Helewise's eleven-year-old granddaughter, Rosamund, goes missing - and has to be rescued.

The emphasis is much less on Helewise than on Josse and younger members of the family, and little remains of her religious past, although she still says an occasional prayer. It is four months since she moved in to Josse's House in the Woods. At first Josse “had been so overjoyed that he had not noticed that all was not as he had hoped. She might have left the abbey, renounced her vows and become an ordinary woman, but the problem was - or so he saw it - that in her heart she was still a nun." It had been 10 years since she had stood down as abbess, then she had spent 5 years living in a tiny little cell dedicated to St Edmund. “It was not that she no longer loved God and wished with all our heart to serve him; it was that she had lost her faith in the church which men had built in his name." It would have been more convincing (and more interesting) if we could have been told more about this.

Helewise had, we are told, a strong love for Josse “even if she had no idea how to express it." For a woman who had previously been married with children, you would have thought that she would have had some idea! However she still has some uses as she does make a couple of helpful suggestions that assist Josse in his search for the abductor.

The plot, that goes on to involve Josse's adopted son Ninian getting into a fight and wounding no less a person than King John himself, seems pretty unlikely, and gets even more so when the king falls for Josse's daughter, Meggie, whose virtue is only saved by the supernatural powers of the magical Eye of Jerusalem!

Some of the dialogue sounds distinctly laboured as when Josse tells Ninian, "You are incapable of leaving without a word of farewell."
“Am I so transparent?" A bitter smile twisted his mouth. “If that's the case, I might as well give myself up right now."
Josse
grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, quite hard. “You are not; only to we who know and love you," he said harshly. “And don't you ever, ever speak of giving yourself up!"
Ninian wriggled free, wincing. “I was only joking," he muttered.
“Then don't," Josse replied shortly. “It isn't funny.“
Meanwhile, "little Helewise (Helewise's 16-year-old grand-daughter) was pale, biting her lip. Geoffroi (Josse's young son) was frowning, as he often did when his emotions threatened to overwhelm him." It all sounds rather hackneyed.

As Helewise no longer has any claim to be counted as a clerical detective, I shall not be reviewing any more of these books that I find increasingly repititive but which apparently still please enthusiastic fans at the libraries at which the publisher mainly aims.



There is an interesting 2002 interview with Alys Clare on the adamsmithbooks.com site.




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