Book Review: Fortune Like the Moon by Alys Clare

Fortune Like the Moon:

Hawkenlye Mystery Series Book 1

by Alys Clare

I really admire detectives, and of course I love the Middle Ages, so when I asked around about medieval mysteries, I was thrilled when my contacts really came through. Amongst many other recommendations, author Joanne Larner suggested Fortune Like the Moon, and I am so glad she did. I’ve been in a reading slump lately, thanks in large part to too much research intake without a break, and Alys Clare’s novel set in twelfth-century England went a long way toward pulling me out.

This is in contrast to another book I recently read and didn’t dislike, even am interested in pursuing the next installment, but felt dragged a bit and perhaps didn’t need to be up in the 400-page count that it was. I feared a little this dragging sensation with Fortune Like the Moon, aware it could be an unjustified association, but something about the book made me dive right in. It may have been the cover artwork that captured and kept my attention, or perhaps the epigraph, the words of which seemed to signal a faster-moving story and more rapidly-changing details to keep up with:

Oh Fortune!

Like the moon, changing,

Forever waxing and waning . . .

Indeed, it takes no time at all to get to the mystery to be solved: the first word in the book is “dead.” The opening sentence gives a visual and tells the who, what, when and where, setting us up immediately to seek the obvious remaining W—and does it with economy. As the story progresses, we learn more of its setting and circumstance. King Richard Plantagenet has just ascended to the throne of England, a country he knows virtually nothing about and whose language he barely speaks. Clare deftly provides brief background to the Lionheart’s family circumstances, including his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a formidable woman determined to educate the English about their new king, who was to be perceived as humane and just, filled with wisdom and Christian forgiveness. To that end, she declares, in Richard’s name, an amnesty that frees all prisoners in English jails who had been awaiting trial or sentencing, though she is fully aware this could backfire, and badly. The aforementioned death, laid out in the novel’s prelude, leads to the predictable criticism of arrogant naïveté and the need for Richard to button this up quickly. Enter Sir Josse d’Acquin, an Anglo-Norman acquainted with this strange land (via his East Sussex mother) tasked with solving the mystery and, hopefully, setting English minds at ease about their new monarch.

Clare’s style is attractive and pleasing not just for her ability to economize, but also because it is so relatable, even in situations most of us would never find ourselves in. For example, when describing the murdered nun’s remains: “So much blood.” In the hands of another author, such a phrase might come off as sophomoric, but here it works, even when the perspective shifts from omniscient narrator to Josse, who frequently talks to himself, and then to the Abbess Helewise, whose wisdom is revealed in her awareness of false modesty’s trap as well as her willingness to recognize intelligence equal to or greater than her own. She and Josse get on so well, in fact, that I found the lack of conflict a bit disconcerting, though not entirely out of place. When would the king’s appointed investigator have to do “battle” with evil forces, and would those include Helewise? There is no doubt she is brilliant, but would the Abbess’s co-operation later be revealed as disguise of her true motive(s)?

A silver denier of Richard, struck in his capacity as Count of Poitiers. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. More on the Lionheart here.

Looking back at Chapter One, we see Clare’s use of circumstance to skillfully shape her characters. Richard, in a fit of temper, stubs his toe on a stone floor slab. Trying to massage the toe is ineffectual, since he is wearing his boots. His anger results in him lashing out, whereby the bishop he had been addressing steps back in haste, following which Richard gains control of his rage and carries on. Though it seems a curious event at first blush, it is not long after that we are able to use it as an opportunity to further assess the king’s character by way of a sort of compare/contrast when he first meets with d’Acquin. Josse, seemingly nervous, kneels in mud and sits in a puddle, the second of which the king initially remains silent about, likely to avoid acknowledging that Josse stands taller than himself. Having given the mercenary the once-over and determined him to have made an attempt at a smartness in appearance he does not naturally possess, he eventually alerts the man to the water soaking the hem of his tunic, though impatiently, whereas Josse’s awkward responses had been marked with respect.

In both instances we see Richard certainly behaving according to his station, but we also feel the hint of manipulation he employs, suppressing it only because he needs something, and frustrated at the requirement. Appearing separate from one another and with other scenes in between, the continuity of this illustration is smooth and well laid out. The only angle I question is of Richard stubbing his toe: if the boot is too thick to massage the toe, how could he have stubbed it? My own ignorance of footwear available at the time—I know very little of this Angevin era—may play into this, but even if it’s a legitimate doubt, it really doesn’t mar the attempt to provide Richard more rounding, and the dialogue is superb.

It also helps that the author includes a drawing of Hawkenlye Abbey, its various areas labeled for easy reference. It is what I refer to as “simple, not simplistic,” and laid out in such a manner that one could easily envision characters moving within the grounds. We get to know them in their daily routines and directed tasks, and Clare gives a real sense of her world as well as that which existed in the historical period. And, as earlier stated, she is able to tell a developed story without running it into excessive length.

Though the book is labelled on online sites as part of a trilogy, I am quite pleased to report it seems to have been successful enough to keep going, and now stands as a seventeen-book series. Given my pleasure at the genre, characters, story, dialogue, introduction to the historical period, continuity and, in this particular installment, setup of Josse and how he comes to be where he is—at beginning as well as end—that is a grand thing and I will definitely be reading more.

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