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A graceful style, plus a plot rich in local color, puts this among the most attractive by far of the recent spate of mysteries set in medieval times.
The first shout was muffled, indistinct. Justin reined in, straining to hear. It came again, and this time there was no mistaking what it was: a desperate appeal for help. Later--much later--Justin would marvel at his reckless response. Now, though, he reacted instinctively, drawn irresistibly by the haunting echoes of that urgent, despairing cry.
Backtracking through the snow, he turned a bend in the road and nearly collided with a runaway, riderless horse. Swerving just in time to avoid the panicked animal, he unsheathed his sword, for any doubts he'd had about what he might find had been dispelled.
The sounds of strife had gotten louder. Responding gamely to Justin's urging, his stallion skimmed over the snow, reaching a dangerous level of speed for such treacherous terrain. Up ahead, a horse neighed shrilly. There was another choked cry for help, a burst of cursing. By then Justin was within sight of the covert. A figure lay prone in the middle of the road, groaning. Nearby, two men were struggling fiercely, while a third man sought to hold on to the reins of a plunging roan stallion. But although Justin was now close enough to see what was occurring, he was not yet close enough to prevent what happened next. One of the men suddenly staggered, then slumped to the ground at his assailant's feet. The outlaw never hesitated. Bending over his victim, blood still dripping from his dagger, he stripped rings from the man's fingers, then began a hasty search of the body.
"Did you find it?" Getting a grunt in reply, the second outlaw tried to lead the horse over, swearing when the animal balked. "Mayhap he hid it in his tunic. He--Christ's Blood! Gib,beware!"
Gib spun around, saw Justin racing toward them, sword drawn, and lunged to his feet. In three strides, he reached the roan stallion, vaulting up into the saddle. "What are you waiting for, you dolt!" he snarled at his partner, who'd yet to move, continuing to gape at Justin's approach. Coming to his senses, the laggard grabbed for the outstretched hand and scrambled up behind his companion. By the time Justin reached the ambush scene, the outlaws were in flight.
Justin had no intention of pursuit. They would have horses hidden close by, and they knew these woods far better than he. As he reined in his mount, he almost came to grief, for Copper shied without warning, nearly unseating him. From the corner of his eye, he caught a slithering, sideways movement, and somewhere in the back of his brain, he noted it, a puzzle to be resolved later, for snakes usually denned up in burrows during the winter months. At the moment, though, his only concern was in calming his horse. Once he had, he dismounted swiftly, anchored Copper to a nearby bush, and turned his attention toward the men.
The closer of the two was a strapping youth about Justin's own age. His face was as colorless as the snow, his hair matted with blood, and he looked dazed and disoriented. But he'd managed to sit up, and Justin bypassed him in favor of the second man, who lay ominously still, a crimson stain spreading beyond him into the snow. Kneeling by his side, Justin caught his breath, for he knew at once that he was looking death in the face.
The man was well past his youth, fifty or so to judge by the grey generously salted throughout the walnut-brown hair and neatly trimmed beard. His mantle was of good quality wool, his boots of soft cowhide, and from what Justin had seen of his stolen roan stallion, he'd been riding an exceptionally fine animal. A man very prosperous, for certes, wealthy enough to be traveling with a servant, dying now in trampled, bloodied snow, unshriven and alone, with only a stranger to hold his hand.
Never had Justin felt so helpless. He attempted to staunch the bleeding with that costly wool mantle, but soon saw it was futile. Cradling the man's head in the crook of his arm, he unhooked the wineskin from his belt, murmuring words of comfort and hope that he knew to be lies. A life was ebbing away before his eyes, and he could do nothing.
The man's lashes quivered. His pupils were dilated, glassy, and unseeing. When Justin tilted the wineskin to his lips, the liquid dribbled down his chin. By now the other man had stumbled over, sinking down in the snow beside them. From him, Justin learned that the dying man was an affluent Winchester goldsmith, Gervase Fitz Randolph, on his way to London on a secret matter that he'd confided to no one, when they'd been set upon by bandits who'd somehow spooked their horses. "I was thrown," the youth said, stifling a sob. "I am sorry, Master Gervase, so sorry. . ."
The sound of his name seemed to rouse Gervase from his stupor. His gaze wandered at first, then slowly focused upon Justin. His chest heaved as he sought to draw air into his laboring lungs, but he had a need no less pressing than his pain, and he ignored Justin's plea to lie still.
"They. . . did not. . . not get it. . ." His words were slurred, soft as a sigh, yet oddly triumphant, too.
Justin was puzzled, for he'd seen the outlaw steal Gervase's money pouch. "What did they not get?"
"Her letter. . ." Gervase gulped for air, and then said with surprising clarity, "I cannot fail her. You must promise me, promise. . ."
"Promise you what?" Just asked warily, for a deathbed promise was a spiritual spider's web, sure to ensnare.
Blood had begun to trickle from the corner of Gervase's mouth. When he spoke again, Justin had to bend down to hear, so close that he could feel Gervase's faltering breath on his face. Unable to believe what he'd just heard, he stared incredulously at the mortally wounded goldsmith. "What did you say?"
"Promise me," Gervase repeated, and if his voice was weak, his eyes burned into Justin's with mesmerizing fervor. "You must deliver this letter to her. . . to the queen."
1. Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful and accomplished women in history. What other strong female characters (either real or fictional) have you read about recently? What are the similarities and differences between those characters and Eleanor?
2. What sort of confinements did women live within in medieval society? Although the position of women in society has changed dramatically since the Middle Ages, do you feel there are similarities between the way women live in society today and the way they lived then?
3. Did you notice Penman's use of medieval words and phrases in The Queen's Man? Did it add to your enjoyment of the story or detract from it?
4. Every once in a while, Penman allows her characters to use modern phrases, such as when Luke--suffering from a hangover--says his mouth "feels like five miles of bad road." Did you notice these flashes of modern phrasing? Did they interfere with or contribute to your understanding of the characters or your enjoyment of the story?
5. In describing the process of working on a mystery, Penman has said it's necessary to leave clues for readers to pick up--should they choose to do so--so they can solve the puzzle. Were you trying to solve the mystery as you read through this story? What clues did you find?
6. Do you see any parallels between the medieval fear of leprosy and the modern fear of AIDS? If so,what are they?
7. What effect did the revelation about the murder of the goldsmith, Gervase Fitz Randolph, have on your feelings about his death?
8. If you had been Justin, would you have stopped to help Gervase? Would you have carried out your promise to deliver his letter?
9. As you read about Gervase's family and their possible motives for murdering him, did you think one of them might have been involved in the killing?
10. After spending some time in the twelfth century with Justin de Quincy and Queen Eleanor, did their world seem surprisingly familiar? Or utterly alien? What were the most striking similarities between their society and ours? The greatest differences?
11. Do you think the changes in society have caused changes in human nature over the centuries?
12. How does this medieval mystery compare to contemporary murder mysteries? Do you prefer one over the other? If so, why?
13. The historical characters central to this story--Eleanor of Aquitaine and her sons Richard and John--have appeared in movies, books, and on television. How does Penman's portrayal of these characters compare to other portrayals you may have encountered?
14. Justin is very angry at his father for failing to acknowledge him as his son, and yet the Bishop of Chester made sure Justin was clothed and fed, that there was a roof over his head, that he received a first-class education, and that he became a squire for a local lord. Considering the bishop's position and the social values of twelfth-century England, do you think Justin was wronged by the bishop? What alternatives did the bishop have?
Posted March 17, 2013
Great first book in a series!
The first book in a series should be one that sets a tone for what follows, but this one definitely sets a bar . So much so, I'm anxious to dive into the other three Justin de Quincy books. Sharon Kay Penman tosses a number of interesting characters out on the field (Luke, Nell, Durant, and Shadow especially), and they look to be worth exploring. But the best thing is that Penman is one heck of a storyteller. So I'm onto book two . . .
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Posted March 1, 2013
No text was provided for this review.