The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings-including the legendary Arthur-as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different-the industrialized, Darwinian, materialistic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. First in a new series of historical mysteries, The Spoils of Avalon introduces two unlikely detectives and life-long friends-beginning as young people on the verge of making their names famous for the next several decades throughout Europe and America: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget, known as the writer Vernon Lee, and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent.
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Writing a novel in two different time periods is nothing new but doing it really well is not so easy. The Spoils of Avalon is, to my way of thinking, a prime example of doing it oh, so very well. I was intrigued when offered the chance to read and review this because I’m fond of both the Arthurian legend and its time and the Victorian period for historical fiction and historical mysteries (not to mention pure historical nonfiction). Ms. Burns not only didn’t fail me, she gave me one of the best reads I’ve had all year. The first thing I have to mention is the tone of the alternating chapters. By that, I mean there is no mistaking whether it’s 1539 or 1877 because the author has such a fine sense of the language and the syntax of each time and the events that were occurring, historically speaking. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were in the midst of destroying the monasteries in 1539 and the fear and disillusionment felt by the Abbot, the young monk, Arthur, and other abbey monks who gave their loyalty to the Church is palpable. Looking back from today, we know how Henry and Cromwell rampaged through all the church holdings, taking their wealth for the Crown and leaving the English Church in ruins. Contrasted with that time is the Victorian era and it’s industrialization and the beginnings of women’s freedoms. Violet and John speak in the mode of language you would anticipate and show the signs of modernity that would have certainly been evident in 1877 England. The characters, primarily Arthur, John and Violet, all came to life for me. I felt the Abbot’s distress and Arthur’s devotion to the man while he was having doubts about his own future as a monk. Seeing Arthur in a teenaged role was interesting, lending a new facet to the king he was to become. John’s love of art, in this time before he gained fame, runs throughout the story and it’s his eye for detail that makes him such a good sleuth. Then there’s Violet, a woman I had not heard of before who made a name for herself as a writer in a man’s world. In Ms. Burns’ hands, Violet is incredibly engaging and intelligent with a wit that enlivens her conversations. She has joined the small group of Victorian sleuths I call my favorites. Getting to the bottom of how Reverend Crickley met his untimely end is, of course, the core of the tale and it’s a very pleasing bit of sleuthing that John and Violet take on. Is the less-than-totally-charming Lord Parke somehow involved? The housekeeper, Mrs. Barnstable? The lawyer Wattendall? And what is the motive behind the death? Anyone in search of a truly engaging mystery with depth of character and plot and interesting historical settings would do well to pick up The Spoils of Avalon, first in what I hope will be a very long series.