Another story set in Peter Tremayne's strange 7th-century Ireland, a free, democratic and egalitarian society where kings are elected, there is complete equality between men and women, slavery is unheard of, and everyone has a hot bath every evening.
Actually, this story is set in Italy, not Ireland, but Fidelma keeps making invidious comparisons, so neither we nor anyone else around her is allowed for one moment to forget that Italy is a very backward and primitive place compared with the south-east of Ireland.
I am beginning to wonder whether not just fictional characters but you and I – "real" people in the "real" world – have different pasts, different histories; that we in fact inhabit different worlds.
I am an only child, but I have friends who assure me that their childhood memories are different from those of their siblings – and as regards certain important incidents, totally different. My own memories do not altogether coincide with those of my mother and grandmother. That we might expect. But it amazes me to find, when I sit down with old school friends to chat and reminisce over a drink, that our memories often differ dramatically.
So why should I be surprised that Peter Tremayne's idea of 7th-century Ireland is so different from mine? Perhaps we both lived previous lives in early medieval Ireland – but a different early medieval Ireland, in what were obviously different worlds, different universes.
I am not carping. I love Tremayne's Ireland – and Europe – and I adore Fidelma. She is everything I would wish to be if I were fortunate enough to live a life in that Ireland at that time.
And now, on with the story.
Tremayne begins by telling us that on a visit to the Trebbia Valley in Italy, he was persuaded to set a Fidelma story in the famous Abbey of Bobbio. As it was difficult to arrange chronologically, he broke his usual habit of writing the books in sequence and set this one immediately after Shroud for the Archbishop, when Fidelma was on her way home from Rome where she had been with Brother Eadulf and whom she had no reason to believe she would ever meet again. (I love knowing what is going to happen later!)
After being caught in a storm, the ship she is on puts in at Genua (sic) for urgent repairs. And while she is waiting for another ship to come along on which she might take passage, she learns that her one-time teacher, Brother Ruadan, now an old man, is at the Abbey of Robbio. He has apparently been set upon by robbers and is not expected to live more than a few days. Naturally, she hastens there to bring him comfort, only to find that it was not robbers at all. He had been beaten up and left for dead because he got wind of a conspiracy of some kind centred in the Abbey itself. At least one person had already been killed, and others will follow as Fidelma begins asking questions and the conspirators start to panic.
Various monks keep taking her aside and telling her she is in danger, she should leave now, immediately, but that of course only makes her more determined to stay and solve the mystery.
As does being abducted and taken to the lair of a mountain war-lord, one of whose various sources of income is selling young females who fall into his hands to slavers! Would Fidelma ever see Ireland – or even Italy! – again?
A good story, one of Tremayne's best, replete as always with distinctive characters, and his handling of the return to the young and less self-confident Fidelma is flawless.