This is the first in a series of novels based on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by my favourite penner of medieval mysteries, Paul Doherty, author of – among many other great tales – the immensely successful series known as The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athanasius. But this series is different in that it doesn't have a single protagonist, a medieval sleuth like Brother Athanasius, going from book to book, but a whole group of characters who take it in turn to tell the tales that make up the series. As in the original Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer's pilgrims are on their way from the Tabard Inn, Southwark (on the Thames, opposite the walled City of London) to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, and to while away the time, each tells a tale, sometimes edifying, often amusing.
In the Prologue to the present book, the landlord of the Tabard, who is to accompany them on the pilgrimage, suggests that each evening the pilgrims should take turns to tell another tale: "'So when we move out tomorrow to St Thomas's watering hole, let us tell a merry tale to instruct or amuse. But, at night,' his voice fell, 'let it be different.' He stared round the now quiet company. 'Let us tell a tale of mystery that will chill the blood, halt the heart and curl the locks upon our heads.'"
An Ancient Evil, the Knight's Tale (he is first in the Chaucer original, and first here) is a tale of strigoi.
Strigoi are the evil dead arising from their tombs at night. It is a Romanian word which also exists in the form striga, witch, and seems originally to have meant an evil witch with vampiric tendencies (like a lamia?). In Italian, strega, streghe, means witch. The Romanian and Italian words both derive from the Latin strix, striga, screech-owl. Which brings us to metamorphosis – shape-shifting – and the question: Is the striga (the witch/vampire) primarily a nocturnal bird, or is she basically human?
In An Ancient Evil, the strigoi are the undead, vampires whose origin seems to be Moldavia, the Transylvanian Alps and the ancient Romanian principality of Wallachia. Indeed, they are the "ancient evil", for the tale begins 250 years earlier when, in the outskirts of Oxford, a strigoi, a "devil incarnate" which "had travelled from Wallachia in the Balkans pretending to be a man dedicated to the service of God", was condemned to be buried alive when he should have been burnt, and a monastery was built over the grave. Now, 250 years later, a spate of horrible murders (whole families with their throats cut and bodies drained of blood) brings Sir Godfrey Evesdon to Oxford as the King's Commissioner, to investigate and carry out judgement. He is accompanied by a Scottish clerk named Alexander McBain and a blind exorcist, Dame Edith Mohun, herself a survivor of "the dark forests and lonely, haunted valleys of Wallachia and Moldavia", where she had been a captive, and had been blinded when she tried to protect herself. The two men cannot believe that the strigoi has survived in his coffin all these years. "Have you not listened?" she snaps. 'The Strigoi never die. If their corpses survive, they merely sleep!'"
Interestingly, the Romanies we meet in the book travelling around Britain will not go near Oxford or the Thames Valley.
As the tale unfolds, there are interludes in which the story is discussed by the shocked pilgrims. Is it true, they want to know, or is it simply a tale to frighten children? Is the middle-aged knight telling the tale, whom they know simply as "Sir Knight", himself the hero, Sir Godfrey, when he was a young man? And is the strigoi who survived still hunting him, intent on revenge, following him - following them - along the road? Perhaps even one of them?
A great start to the series.