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Canterbury Papers: A Novel of Suspense

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Set in lavishly described medieval England and France, The Canterbury Papers is an enthralling and suspenseful debut novel combining dark family secrets, duplicity, and a missing heir to the throne.

The wily Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France and then of England, sends her former ward, Alaïs, the sister of the king of France, to retrieve a cache of letters hidden in Canterbury Cathedral. Letters that, in the wrong hands, could bring down the English king. In return, Eleanor ...

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2004 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Clean and tight-unused copy-Excellent! ! Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 368 p. Audience: General/trade.

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Overview

Set in lavishly described medieval England and France, The Canterbury Papers is an enthralling and suspenseful debut novel combining dark family secrets, duplicity, and a missing heir to the throne.

The wily Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France and then of England, sends her former ward, Alaïs, the sister of the king of France, to retrieve a cache of letters hidden in Canterbury Cathedral. Letters that, in the wrong hands, could bring down the English king. In return, Eleanor promises to reveal a long-held and dangerous secret involving Alaïs — a bargain the French princess is powerless to resist.

Within the fortnight the letters would be delivered to Fontrevault Abbey. Then Eleanor would be happy, and I would finally get the information she had promised.

So engaged was I in the arduous task of rising that I failed to hear the slight sound behind me that would have signaled my fate. Instead I was taken completely by surprise. The only thing I felt was a strong hand around my neck, another around my waist, and — before I could cry out — I smelled the thick, sweet scent of a mandrake-soaked cloth. Unforgiving hands clapped it against my face, and all went dark.

Before Alaïs can complete her mission, she is abducted, an event that sets in motion a dangerous plot. It will require all of Alaïs's considerable strengths, along with help from the very intriguing leader of the Knights Templar, to unravel dark secrets, unmask evil villains, and escape with her life.

A vividly rendered, spine-tingling historical novel filled with intrigue and peopled with compelling legendary figures, The Canterbury Papers is an extraordinary tale from a brilliant new writer.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This engaging medieval suspense debut is alternately playful and sober in its exploration of the power maneuvers and backstabbing of the royal families of England and France. The story, set in the early 1200s, is narrated by Princess Ala s Capet, a bored and somewhat bitter member of the French nobility, long passed over for both matrimony and higher status. Ala s is approached by Queen Eleanor, who asks her to retrieve a secret and highly personal cache of letters hidden in England's Canterbury Cathedral. Eleanor won't explain the importance of the letters, but in return for salvaging them, she promises to divulge family secrets that Ala s could use to her advantage. Ala s, frustrated by the slow and tiresome life at the French court, agrees to run the errand, but when she reaches Canterbury, she finds not only the letters missing but a trail of dead bodies in her wake. Just as she is about to depart for home, she's abducted and taken prisoner by King John, an inept and insecure leader who views Ala s as an important pawn in his attempts to strengthen his tenuous grip on the throne. Healey's well-researched historical drama many of the characters and circumstances are based on real-life models delights in poking fun at the stuffiness and misbehavior that characterized the royal families of the time. The pace may be a little too leisurely for some readers, but Ala s's tart, wry perspective makes this age-old story fresh and absorbing. (Dec. 23) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Although you might not realize it from reading recent historical fiction set in the Middle Ages (e.g., Sharon Penman's Time and Chance, Pamela Kaufman's The Book of Eleanor), other women lived in the 12th century besides Eleanor of Aquitaine. In this well-plotted debut, Princess Alais Capet is the heroine-and a delightful one at that. Brave, outspoken, and passionate, Alais was a real historical figure, sister to the king of France and also, somewhat shockingly, mistress to Henry II (her stepfather) while Eleanor was locked up in the tower at Sarum. Set years later, the novel opens with the aging Eleanor calling upon Alais to fetch important papers hidden in Canterbury Cathedral. Along the way, the princess encounters Benedictine scholars, the Knights Templar, and a hostile King John. There are details aplenty of medieval life and lore, but the pace moves at breakneck speed as Alais travels from France to England and back again on the trail of what becomes an evermore complex mystery involving the crown of England. This will appeal both to fans of historical fiction and medieval/Renaissance mystery series by such authors as Fiona Buckley, Karen Harper, Kate Sedley, and Peter Tremayne. Highly recommended for all public libraries.-Wendy Bethel, Southwest P.L., Grove City, OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A dangerous mission and a reluctant princess. Hoping to retrieve the letters she once wrote to Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Eleanor of Aquitaine sends Princess Alais of France to England. The letters were hidden within the altar of the cathedral-but how did they get there? That proves to be a very complicated story, involving the intertwined histories of the French and English royal families and a lot of skulking about in stone corridors. The mysterious Knights Templar have something to do with it as well and clank around making mischief-including, at one point, kidnapping the princess. Though newcomer Healey, whose passion, we're told, is medieval history, does her best to simplify matters, the endless exposition, much of it embedded in dialogue, can be rather confusing. Suffice it to say that Princess Alais has some experience at keeping secrets, having given birth years ago to a bastard child whose fate she never learned. Eleanor of Aquitaine hints that she has knowledge of this-the unfortunate event ended Alais's betrothal to Richard the Lionhearted, and the princess, perforce, returned to France. And Eleanor, not the most tenderhearted of queens, prevails. The princess begins her journey, aided by loyal retainers she remembers from her years at the court of King Henry of England, Eleanor's second husband. There's more skulking about, followed by a torrent of explanations from assorted characters on medieval history, art, religious belief, society, and politics. The letters? Not where she was told to look . . . . The heroine, who obviously would have been a devout Catholic, seems never to have been in a church before and notes with some astonishment thatimages from "the Christian belief system" decorate the columns of Canterbury Cathedral. To the story's detriment, other pedantic asides proliferate. Intriguing premise, stifled by a scholarly obsessiveness. Agent: Marly Rusoff
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060525354
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/23/2003
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith Koll Healey indulges her hobby, medieval history, when she is not working as a consultant to family foundation boards in solving planning and dynamics problems. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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First Chapter

The Canterbury Papers
A Novel of Suspense

Chapter One

The Courier

Lady Eleanor was my stepmother, and the dearest friend of my childhood. To everyone else she was Queen Eleanor of England, or the Duchess of Aquitaine, or "Your Highness." To me she was simply the Lady Eleanor.

Our long and complicated history had many bends in the road, and our early intimacy had long since disappeared from view. Even so, it was hard to imagine that she meant me bodily harm. But there was no doubt in my mind that my current situation could be traced directly to the letter Queen Eleanor had sent to my brother's Paris court not a fortnight earlier.

Philippe and I were closeted together when her letter arrived. We were in his private chambers in our drafty palace on the Île de la Cité, perched on the edge of the wind-whipped Seine, when the courier found us. We were alone, without guards or servants, as was usual when he wished to badger me about some inadequacy of my performance as princess royal.

"Alaïs," I recall him saying, "I have hesitated to speak to you about this, but your behavior is becoming more and more a daily topic of discussion for the court."

With hands clasped behind his back, he paced away from me as he talked, so that his words at the end became muffled as if flung against the wind. I sighed.

The chamber suited Philippe. His passion was war, always had been. The tapestries that lined the high stone walls and provided some measure of warmth were laced with hunting scenes -- men with spears, boars in flight, hounds leaping. Hunting is, after all, a form of war; at least I would think so if I were an animal. The doors that guarded the privacy of the chamber were of oak and carved with scenes from the ancient battle of Troy. Encircling the hearth was another remarkable piece of oak carved by highly skilled artisans. They had used their art to design miniature weapons -- bows, arrows, knives, swords -- all intertwined like a chain of malicious grapes winding around the gentle hearth fire.

"Well, what do you have to say, sister?" He turned unexpectedly and headed back in my direction. I forced my attention to the issue.

"I cannot understand, brother, why the court should gossip about me in this way. Unless it is that your courtiers are envious of my serenity in the midst of the tremendous chaos that reigns over this impending wedding."

"They say not that you are serene." Philippe's toe stubbed on a corner of one of the Smyrna carpets of which he was so proud. He cursed softly as he caught himself. At such vulnerable moments, he was not the king of France to me. I saw him only as my younger brother.

"The reports are the reverse, that your feeling about this wedding runs high. The charge is that you refuse to take part in the preparations, or even give advice when it is sought, but instead become angry when Agnès or her ladies try to involve you in their plans." He began to rub his brow, always a sign that his headaches were returning, then covered the gesture by running his fingers through his dark, cropped hair. "Alaïs, this is becoming an issue between Agnès and my royal self. She feels you are not supportive of this coming wedding between our son and the house of the Plantagenet."

I held back yet another sigh. Philippe felt caught; I could see it in his face. I knew he did not want to have this conversation with me, that Agnès had forced it on him. We cared for each other, and he mostly left me alone to brood in my own way or withdraw if it suited me. For all his faults, he was my brother. I sometimes saw in his face the broader outlines of my own as it played back to me from the metal mirror he himself had brought me from the south. We had different mothers, but the lines and shapes of our faces, long and thin, were of the father we shared, and we had the same slightly almond-shaped eyes, those eyes of the Capet house of France. His were dark, while I had been told mine were as green as the eyes of my black cat.

"Philippe, try to understand my position." I shifted on the cushions to lean forward and made a gesture of appeal with my good hand. "I don't like weddings. I don't want any part of them. I am delighted that you have arranged this marriage between little Louis and Eleanor's granddaughter." I smiled but then spoiled it by muttering, "Although why Eleanor of Castile would want to send the child Blanche from sunny Spain north to the damp fog of Paris is beyond me."

Philippe stopped in front of the small couch on which I had draped myself. "That is exactly the kind of comment that -- "

"-- that gets me in trouble in this court of yours," I finished for him. It was so easy to finish his remarks, because, on some subjects, they were so predictable.

"It's your court as well, Alaïs," he said, sounding wounded.

"No, it 's not, Philippe. Let's not—at least between us when we are alone -- keep up that fiction. I am here at your sufferance. I was sent back here like an unwanted package when my betrothal to Richard ended and Queen Eleanor found me an embarrassment. You are kind, but I am of an age where I should have my own home and county, and a husband of my own. I don't, and so I find myself your guest." I tried to speak in a matter-of-fact manner but found my voice oddly giving way to some kind of shakiness as I finished. So I stopped talking until I had more possession of myself.

The Canterbury Papers
A Novel of Suspense
. Copyright © by Judith Healey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction by Judith Healey

The politics and arts of the era of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II Plantagenet have long captured me. These were the times in which the Grail stories were written, stories which many believe fictional. Yet the times, the 12th Century, were more dramatic than the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail.

I had known since I was a child about the troubadours, about Robin Hood and his Merry Men and about the courts of love which Eleanor held in Poitiers. But it was later that I found out that Henry left a vivid legacy as well, since he gave us the system of local governance that is the basis for our common law today.

When I was a child I was equally fascinated by the Crusades and heard stories of the noble Saladin and Richard, King of England. It was only later that I understood the geo-political context of these tales. Initially, I just saw them as fascinating stories about leaders.

In recent years I became 'hooked' on reading history in this period, and one day, while traveling in France, I stumbled on the story of Alais and Henry. The chronicles of the time indicated that Alais, a ward of Henry and Eleanor and daughter of their sometime enemy and Eleanor's first husband Louis, King of France, may have had a child by Henry when he was older and Alais was only in her teens. But the chronicles are mysteriously silent about the fate of that child, who could have been heir to either or both kingdoms of France and Italy.

Fascinated by the possibilities, I asked myself: What if? What if Alais thought the child dead? What if it had survived? What if she discovered he was alive and sought to find him, when he was grown?

Thus was born thisnovel. Because I had read so much history, I didn't do research as such, except on food and clothes. I had to check facts, of course, and modify some things as I was going along. But the story came easily because I became so interested to see how it would turn out!

Questions for Discussion

  1. In the constant battles between England and France in this period, what did each kingdom seek? Did Louis and Henry appear to be sworn enemies? Did they have any common goals?

  2. Why was King John, sometimes called Lackland in so much trouble with the church? What do you imagine his goals were? From the perspective of this story, does it appear he will be a successful king? Why or why not? What qualities does he evidence or lack that supports your opinion?

  3. What do you make of the affair of Alais and Henry? Was he wrong to express his feelings as he did? What attracted him to Alais? What did she feel or not feel about him?

  4. Why does William have access to so many resources? Where does his power come from? What are his gifts, in your opinion? What are his shortcomings?

  5. What feeling dominates Alais at the beginning of the novel? Why does she undertake this journey? Is she putting herself in danger with her small party? Why or why not? Do you agree with her uncle's assessment of her when they meet at the Boar's Head Inn? What would you say her most significant asset is?

  6. What role does her art play in her habits of thinking and seeing? What role did it play in her various assessments of the situation while she was traveling? Do artist generally see things other miss?

  7. Alais had a physical difference about her. How did she treat this difference or think of it at various times? What do you know about what people thought of physical deformities in the middle ages? Where is the evidence of this in the book?

  8. What is the major change Alais experienced in the course of this story. What aspects of the final scenes illustrate this change? What specific events in the story have helped to bring about that change?

  9. Where in the book does Alais demonstrate courage? Where do you think she is rash? Would you have counseled her to do other than she did in any of the scenes?

  10. This story was set in the time that the Grail stories were written. The original Grail stories were written by Chretien de Troyes, whose patron was Marie, Countess of Champagne, daughter of Eleanor and Louis. How could you view The Canterbury Papers as a grail story? What similarities are there between Alais' quest and the grail knights' quest? If Alais found a grail at the end of this story, what would it be? Would it be a person, or a quality, or a state of mind?

About the author

Judith Koll Healey is currently the president of a national firm that works with families in their philanthropic efforts. She is a published poet and short-fiction writer and has lectured internationally on the topic of art and the unconscious. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is her first novel.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2004

    Medieval Adventure

    Princess Alaïs is bored and disillusioned with life in the court of her brother the King of France. When Eleanor of Aquitaine dangles the promise of information that Alaïs desperately wants, Alaïs agrees to travel to Canterbury to retrieve a packet of Eleanor¿s potentially embarrassing letters. Her simple quest turns into something more dangerous as her rooms are ransacked and she is snatched away from the protection of her attendant knights. How can she gain possession of the elusive letters and why are so many people suddenly interested in her jeweled pendant? Alaïs has to figure out whom she can trust as her path collides with King John, mysterious monks, and the Knights of Templar. Dangerous secrets about her stormy past with the royal family of England just might hold the key. You don¿t have to be an expert on medieval times to appreciate The Canterbury Papers, but Healey thoughtfully includes a brief overview of royal politics of the time and a summary at the end separating the fiction from the facts. The book has a historically accurate feel, and it is obvious that Healey put a lot of time into her settings and characterizations. This charming mystery surprised me ¿ I didn¿t expect to be as captivated as I was. Alaïs is a strong character with wit and passion. Healey throws in a charming romance, which does a great job of lightening the tone set by endless court intrigue and family betrayals.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2003

    Intrigue & Excitement

    You'll fall in love with Alias. The book is full of intrigue & you won't want to put it down. One of the most loveable books I have read in a long time.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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