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Fishing the corpse of a fellow pilgrim from a harbor in Crete to give him a Christian burial, Friar Felix Fabri and his patron Lord Tucher escort the dead man to a church containing a relic of the Friar's heavenly bride, the martyr Saint Katherine—and find it stolen. So it goes across the Mediterranean: Whenever they reach a location supposed to possess relics of Katherine, Felix learns that they've just been filched. A woman named Arsinoë, who joins the pilgrims on board ship, begins to seem a likely suspect: She is believed to be the "Tongue of Saint Katherine," through whom the saint speaks to those on earth. The suspect's odd behavior takes an even stranger twist when she assumes her Greek husband's identity after his death en route. Other deaths follow when the Holy Land is reached, leaving the Friar torn: Is Arsinoë really what she thinks she is, or is she dangerously delusional, as her pursuing brother Niccolo claims. By misleading her brother, Felix helps her to get a head start on a trek across the desert to Mount Sinai, home of Katherine's shrine, then learns that she may be bent on destroying what he has crossed the world to see. The final stages of the journey bring privation, betrayal, and death to most of his fellow travelers, including his patron and Arsinoë. Having barely survived himself, the friar is left a wiser man, to contemplate his harrowing experience with what remains of his faith.
Light humor and deep tragedy coexist uneasily here, with the latter ultimately triumphant, but the unevenness doesn't change the fact that this is a rich, surprisingly compelling tale of faith and spiritual transformation.
Posted June 20, 2011
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