Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Bone of Contention by Roberta Gellis

Magdalene la Bátarde, mistress of the Old Priory whorehouse, is summed to Oxford to help William of Ypres as he tries to manoeuvre his way through the politics of King Stephen’s court. Magdalene’s slightly dubious position allowed her to do many things for him that other women, and even some men, could never have done. It is fortunate for William that he had the foresight to make this arrangement as his man quickly becomes implicated in a murder which could have far more repercussions than usual as it comes during the King’s Council where suspicion and intrigue are ripe. William asks Magdalene to find the killer and clear his man before any more damage can be done to his reputation. With the help of Sir Bellamy, Magdalene sets about her task, but gets more than she bargained for.

I think I’ve said before that the Magdalene la Bátarde mysteries aren’t ever going to be classed as great literature, but they are good, quick comfort reads for those days when you just want t a good mystery. These are particularly good for those who like historical novels as they are set in the 12th century. This is an era I’ve become rapidly familiar with in the last year or so as I’ve read several books which take place during Stephen’s reign and even though they’ve all been fiction, it’s still given me a new appreciation for history, especially how our lives have changed throughout the ages.

This book in particular provides insight into the world of women in the middle ages. Most women during this period were pretty much powerless to control their own destinies. Magdaglene, however, because of her profession, has already been outcast from good society and therefore is not longer subject to the same constraints as other women. She not only understands and accepts her position, she’s intelligent and level-headed enough to know how to use it to her advantage. She plays by the rules, but manoeuvres within them to use them to her own advantage rather than just accepting the position men would like to put her into. Some of Gellis’ other women characters also refuse to let themselves be defeated before they even begin so even though it’s not any great Oeuvre, it’s refreshing after characters such as Dorcas Slythe (A Crowning Mercy by Bernard Cornwell) who are pretty much wet dishcloths in terms of spirit. It’s nice to see women sticking up for themselves instead of just letting themselves be used. I’m not actually any great feminist in the sense of “we must wage war on men and their laws” feminist, but I do believe with getting on with life as opposed to just allowing it to buffet you around as it sees fit. Action, any action, is better than inertia. That’s why I like Magdalene so much. She gets on with it and uses what she has to get where she needs to go. Maybe not in the straight line that would be nice, but at least she gets there.

So, as a good wet Sunday read, I give this one a 4 out of 5.

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