(creator: Peter Tremayne)
|Sister Fidelma, I am glad to report, has a very prolific author who is still very much alive and busy producing even more stories about her. This is Peter Tremayne, the pen-name of the Irish Post columnist Peter Berresford Ellis. The Sister Fidelma stories (only a small part of his total output) are set for the most part in mid-seventh century Ireland at a time when the Roman church was winning power from the Celtic church - and very convincing it all sounds. Tremayne did his degrees in Celtic Studies, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and writes with real knowledge and understanding.
Sister Fidelma, when we first meet her, is not only a religieuse, but is a qualified dalaigh, or advocate of the ancient laws of Ireland. Don't be put off by the Celtic background - or by the rather difficult Irish names. Everything is clearly explained. Accompanied by her friend, the Anglo Saxon Brother Eadulf (whom, it could well be said, she gets to know better and better from book to book), she experiences all sorts of dramatic and often violent adventures (including one involving an assassination attempt planned at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD) but what intrigues me most is the picture the books paint of Celtic Ireland at a time when there were still mixed sex monasteries, when monks and nuns were allowed to marry and when women could become lawyers and judges. Fidelma enjoys real respect, power and equality - but no doubt it is a help being sister to the king!
At first Sister Fidelma was just featured in short stories, but the later full-length novels are much more satisfying because Tremayne is good at building up suspense and developing attention-grabbing plots: Absolution by Murder, appeared in 1994, and was followed by Shroud for the Archbishop (1995), Suffer Little Children (1995), The Subtle Serpent (1996), The Spider's Web (1997), Valley of the Shadow (1998), The Monk Who Vanished (1999), Act of Mercy (1999), Hemlock at Vespers (collected short stories, 2000), Our Lady of Darkness (2000), Smoke in the Wind (2001), The Haunted Abbot (2002), Badger's Moon (2003), The Leper's Bell (2004), Whispers of the Dead (more short stories, 2004), and Master of Souls (2005). Interestingly, he does not work out his plots in advance, but just lets them develop as he writes. He is perhaps less assured with descriptive passages, as when he writes, "It was a moment of pure chemistry. Some empathy passed from the dark brown eyes of the man into Fidelma's green ones". One way and another, there seems rather a lot about her green eyes and red hair.
Master of Souls (2005)
It is a murderous tale that grips the interest throughout. Fidelma is still very much the leading partner, although "for nearly a year now Fidelma and Eadulf had been joined as ban charrthach and fer comtha, partners for a year and a day, a legal marriage under the law but a temporary one. After a year and a day, if incompatible, they could go their separate ways without blame and without payment of compensation to one another". Poor Eadulf complains that, instead of settling down together, "We seem to be constantly drifting from one drama to another", and very much misses their baby son Alchu, whom they have had to leave in safe keeping. All this background material is really fascinating, especially as the abbey is "a conhospitae, a mixed house in which male and female live together working for the glory of God and where their children are raised to that ideal".
But, in practice, children "are frowned on" and there are those who believe it should become an all-male stronghold. An old monk insists that "a person cannot be married and be perfect. Was it not the Holy Father Gregory the Great who pronounced that all sexual desire is sinful in itself? Fidelma snorted in disgust. 'You mean that such a natural desire is therefore evil? Is it then suggested that the God we worship created such an evil?'
The 7th century provides a particularly interesting setting because of the mixture of old Celtic Christian and incoming Roman Catholic ideas, mixing with pagan beliefs. As Gaeth, a village blacksmith, says, "We are not Christians ... That is why we dwell apart in order that those would proselytise us do not bother us. Argument is a tedious thing. We each come to the Dagda, the Good God, along our own path." "It seems that you are well-named, Gaeth," Fidelma said, for the name meant clever and wise.
The Irish names aren't always easy to cope with: "There were still members of the Ui Fidgente who refused to accept the rule of Donennach of the Ui Chonaill Gabra. They wanted to see the return of the rule of the old dynasty of the Ui Choirpre Aedba. Yet both families traced their descent to Fiachu Fidgennid." A little of this goes a long way, and it is not really helped very much by the inclusion of several pages of Pronunciation Guide at the end of the book. But skip over the names, and just enjoy the fast-moving story and the convincing background, and look out for all the issues that are still relevant today. Recommended.
A Prayer for the Damned (2006)
But on the eve of the ceremony, the unpopular but supposedly pious Abbot Ultan, who opposed the marriage on the grounds that the religious should not be allowed to get married, is found murdered in his bed chamber. But was he really the virtuous man he claimed to be? Fidelma, appointed to defend Muirchertach Nar, King of Connacht, who has been accused of the brutal murder, discovers that many of the guests have good reason to hate the Abbot. Then another death follows and the wedding has to be further postponed while Fidelma continues her investigations.
This makes a much less gripping story than its predecessors because almost all of it happens in one place, Cashel, and much of it is taken up with Fidelma asking questions about the past rather than having exciting adventures of her own. And the Irish names seem to grow more and more involved, with text like: "I was playing a game of brandubh with Dunchad Muirisci of the Ui Fiachracha Muaide until close to midnight."
The arguments about whether or not the religious should be able to marry are of some interest. Fidelma argues that, "Most priests and other religious throughout all the kingdoms of the world still marry. I have heard that this inclination towards celibacy seems to be part of a movement emanating from those who seek to denigrate the role of women in the world." But this is no substitute for exciting action.
Fidelma admits that "to enter a religious house in order to pursue a career in law was but a stepping stone for me. I cannot say that I was really an advocate of the Faith." But , even so, she won't be bullied into disclaiming her vow to serve the Faith, and is determined to sort out what has happened. "She felt that old sensation that there was something not quite right." The one person she never seems to spend much time with is her own son Alchu, but then he has a full-time nurse. She is getting rather arrogant too: She compares her pursuit of the murderer to a game of brandubh: "The brandubh board will now become the great hall where all the players and pieces will be gathered. Before the Chief Brehon Barran, I shall commence my attack. eliminating each suspect before cornering the murderer." And so she does. But it is not one of the more exciting books.
Dancing with Demons (2007)
Sechnussach, High King of Ireland, is found dead in his bedchamber with his throat cut, and Dubh Duin, the chieftain of the clan Cinél Cairpre, the assassin who is caught in the act, stabs himself to death. The Chief Bredon of Ireland asks Sister Fidelma to find out what possible motives could have driven Dubh Duib to murder the High King.
Fidelma, accompanied by her partner (and now husband) Brother Eadulf and two Cashel warriors, sets off for the High King's palace at Tara. This leads on to a series of violent and exciting adventures in which both Fidelma and Eadulf are taken prisoner at the same time, although in different places and by different captors. And, in each case, they are just about to be killed, when their attackers both "fell to the ground", mortally wounded. What a happy coincidence! Usually the author is much more convincing.
Tremayne is usually a good story-teller and he brings his characters to life (he is quite capable of killing them off too, so you can never be sure what is going to happen. But you get involved and this keeps you reading).The Irish background is handled with the author's usual skill, although sometimes he still goes over the top with the Irish names, as when he explains: "Dubh Dahn traced his descent back from Niall's son Cairpre while Sechnussach traced his back to Niall's son Conall and the line of Sil nÁedo Sláine."
The conflict with remaining adherents of the Old (pagan) Faith is well described. But, as Fidelma tells Eadulf, "Part of me is worried that we are creating a deep abyss between our new world and those of our ancestors in the old world. Once that chasm has been made, we will never be able to re-cross it and know their thoughts, their fears and their hopes." Yet this is exactly what this author manages to do.
Fidelma herself is far from a saintly figure. For one thing "she did not believe in miracles of any sort". Years ago, she had been "ill-suited to life as a religieuse at the abbey of Cill Dara" and had soon left it. She is much happier acting as a dálaigh ("qualified to the role of anruth," as she keeps telling people), who happens also to be sister to a king, and is very conscious of her superior position, so Eadulf usually just does as he's told. When she and Eadulf set off for Tara she says that "it grieves me to desert my son after returning here a short time". Then, when she has solved the mystery, she announces, " 'It is time we returned to the peace of Cahil and to our little Alchu. At this rate, our poor child will not know us. We barely spend any time at all with him.' Eadulf grimaced but wisely said nothing." She is hardly the world's most devoted mother.
Ironically, one thing she detested, according to Eadulf, was "arrogance in others", so, imperfect though she may be, she comes across as a real human being. Yet she can be tolerant too: "We do not have a monopoly on all that is good .... The New Faith binds us to have charity towards all and not to fear those who follow different paths."
She makes a shrewd questioner and is at her best when she holds the floor at the Great Assembly, when she produces a whole series of surprises, but all of them credible. Although the pace slackens here and there, her presence holds the interest throughout.
The Council of the Cursed (2008)
The story gets off to a slow start with all the bickering beween delegates, and it is only when Fidelma starts on a dangerous exploration of the Domus Femini (women's quarters), that excitement really builds up. Fidelma herself gets bitten by an adder, almost squashed by a falling statue, and eventually gets knocked out, so, once she is hot on the trail, there is no lack of incident.
As always, the background details are full of interest, as when Fidelma is horrified to discover that "the farm work (at the abbey) is done by the slaves and supervised by the brethren". Slavery is an idea that she finds repugnant. Since Bishop Leodegar had taken over a year before, the abbey was no longer a mixed house. As a monk told her, "Many here still have wives and even children in the adjoining Domus Femini - wives we had to put from us if we wished to continue as religious here."
Usually the most boring parts of detective stories are the pages and pages of detailed explanations that bring them to an end, but here all is explained by Fidelma in front of the whole abbey and it makes an exciting conclusion, even if, ultimately few of the characters are to meet a very happy ending.
The Dove of Death (2009)
There are some really exciting moments as when Fidelma's ship comes under attack, led by a captain who "appeared to be a young man, but he was shrouded from head to foot in white so that his face was not seen." He had a peculiarly shrill voice too, and we are given occasional clues as to who this might be, but it needs Fidelma's particular skills (including her ability to recognise the ship's cat, and to identify arrows) to sort this all out.
The author is, of course, a historian and this sometimes leads him into telling us more than we really want to know, as when he explains, "After Canao died, his one surviving brother, Macliau, became King - and when he died, his son, another Canao, became King. Then he died and Judicael of Domnonia claimed the kingdom. In fact, Judicael claimed kingship of all the Bretons and also descent from Waroch. So he named the kingdom as Bro-Waroch, the country of Waroch."
On the other hand, other historical details are fascinating, as when Fidelma is questioned by her rescuer, Brother Metullus, about the way that "even a woman could succeed to be head of the family in your land".
The highly dramatic use of a secret weapon (liquid fire) eventually determines the outcome of an exciting sea battle, and in a dramatic finale Fidelma exposes the identity of the mysterious and murderous person in white. This final denoument comes as a surprise to everyone, and once again (unlike so many long explanatory endings) holds the interest throughout.
Fidelma's long-suffering husband, Brother Eadulf, manages to get himself almost drowned on two separate occasions, but otherwise just meekly obeys Fidelma's numerous instructions, reminding her on occasions that it was a long time since they had seen their young son back at home. There's no doubt about who wears the trousers in this family!
The story offers the usual combination of gripping action (including murderous attacks, rape and stabbings) and difficult names, leading to sentences like, "I am told that his Cousin Finsnechta Fledach, the son of Dúnchad, who was brother to Cenn Fáeled's father, has raised objections." Unfortunately, though, the Breton setting proves less interesting than previous ones, and you cannot help but feel that the author may be running out of new ideas.
The book ends with Fidelma wondering "whether she should give up the symbols of religious life. That would not be difficult for her, as she had never really been committed to them .... She was no religious at heart. She knew it. She even challenged some of the basic dogmas of the Faith where she felt they needed it." So her final thought is "about leaving the religious altogether and taking her place in the role that she had, unofficially, long since filled. That was the role as a legal adviser to her brother, Colgú, King of Cashel." Perhaps that would also give the author some new ground to explore.
The Chalice of Blood (2010)
When an eminent scholar is found murdered in his cell in the Abbey of Lios Mór, fear spreads among his brethren; his door was secured from the inside, with no other means of an exit. How did the murderer escape? And what was the content of the manuscripts apparently stolen from the scholar's room? Abbot Iarnla insists on sending for Fidelma to investigate the killing, and asks that the reluctant Eadulf should come too. But even before they reach the abbey walls, there is an attempt on their lives. Fidelma realises that "she could not really contemplate an existence without Eadulf's support. Who else would tolerate her sharp temper?” But she cannot make up his mind for him ....
The story gets off to an arresting start and holds the attention throughout. It is no mean feat to achieve this in such a long-running series, which makes it such a happy contrast to so many of the overlong series described in these pages. Occasionally Fidelma verges into the pompous, as when Eadulf tells her, "I realise that it is your brother who is trying to mend fences; it was not your doing to bring me back to Cashel.”
So the reader becomes involved in their relationship as well as in the intricacies of the plot which make this an exciting and engrossing story. When it comes to uncovering the truth and standing up to her critics, Fidelma proves to be as formidable as ever. And the graphic descriptions of life at the time (and to the critical writings of the second century Greek philosopher Celsus) add to the interest.
Behold a Pale Horse (2011)
Fidelma is determined to see Brother Ruadin before he dies, not realising that her dying teacher's last words would send her off on a dangerous adventure where murder follows murder and a vicious civil war is a constant threat.
As always, it all gets off to a good start and there is plenty of action in the story which is the only one in the series (excluding the short stories) that is out of chronological order, as its real place would be just after Shroud for the Archbishop. This, and the absence of Brother Eadulf, make it just a bit less appealing than usual, and it is not always easy to remember who is who, and there are times when not all the chunks of history and elaborate explanations seem to be absolutely necessary.
But there is still plenty to hold the interest as when we read of all the in-fighting between traditionalists and followers of Arius (who had taught that "There could be only one God. While God the Father had existed eternally, God the Son, born as Jesus, did not and was therefore created by, and thus inferior, to God. He even argued that this meant, at one time, Christ (and the Holy Ghost) did not exist.'" It was this dismissal of the doctrine of the Trinity that had led to him being declared a heretic at the First Council of Nicaea and all his works being banned.) Fidelma, we are told, "saw a logic to the argument, which she had never heard before." She felt that, "Surely there was no needs to kill one another over that?" But then she also had her doubts about the omnipotence of God - but, of course, she had never been "passionate abour religion". However, she remains a formidable and intriguing character - and it is a considerable achievemnent that the author has managed to sustain her appeal through such a long series of books.
The story has its interesting touches such as the way that Fidelma disapproves of her royal brother's intended marriage partner, and seems to sulk after not being appointed Chief Brehon, although she admits, without enthusiasm, that the man appointed "does have much more experience than I do." However, as she points out to Eadulf, "I have not left the religion, only the religious." Anyway, for years now, she had "acted independently of any Rule or religious authority. To be honest, and I'm sure that you would admit it, my recent leaving was a formality only." Eadulf still does not really approve of this and keeps on wearing the robes of a religieux.
There are the usual informative explanations of life at the time, as when we are told that "The daer-fuidir was the lowest of the social classes in all the five kingdoms. They were usually criminals, and liable to pay a fine or compensation, or sometimes they were even captives taken in battles from other lands. Fidelma knew that a daer-fuidir, if he showed remorse and industry, had the ability to progress to the level of saer-fuidir. That meant he could be allocated land from the common wealth of the clan and be allowed to work it in order to pay off the debt to society. Some daer-fuidir could accumulate sufficient wealth and status to move forward to become a clansman, a ceile, with full rights."
Interesting too is the description of eating habits of the time: "There were even basins of water provided, for the custom was to use a knife in the right hand and eat with the fingers of the left hand, leaning them in the water and drying them with a lambrat or hand cloth."
Unfortunately, though, the story gets off to a slow start and offers less dramatic action than previous ones. You begin to wonder if it's really worth working through the welter of confusing Irish names as it only begins to come to life with the kidnapping of Fidelma - but even this lacks the usual excitement (she is found and rescued comparatively easily) and you have to wait until the storming of the enemy fortress before it gets really exciting.
At one point, a warrior suggests, "We should move on. The longer we stay here discussing things, the more dangerous it becomes." In fact, in this story a great deal of time is spent discussing possibilities and theorising about what might or might not have happened, and this is no substitute for a really gripping plot.
Even Fidelma herself doesn't seem to be quite as interesting or attractive a character as she once was. She seems to get more and more pompous, as when she pronounces, with reference to the drunken Brother Ailgesach, "Intoxication to this degree is reprehensible in one who aspires to be a religious." And it is the long-suffering Eadulf, not her, who first points out that Brother Ailgesach had been murdered whereas Fidelma had supposed he had just choked to death on his own vomit. And it is Eadulf who works out the direction in which her kidnappers' boat must have gone. He seems to have more of the best lines too as when, complaining about being on horseback so often, he comments "I have been sea-sick many, many times. Is there such a malady as horse-sickness? If so, I have had it."
Atonement of Blood (2013)
The story gets off to a really good start with plenty happening to hold the interest, but the plot and lengthy explanations get increasingly tortuous and become bedded down in sentences like "When Nissan had founded the abbey, it was under the patronage of Lomman, son of Erc, Prince of the Ui Fidgente. When Nessan died it was endowed by Prince Manchin, son of Sedna, who claimed descent from Cormac Casa, who maintained that that his people were senior to the Eoghanacht in their claim to the Kingdom of Muman." There is still some exciting action but Fidelma's lengthy interrogations provide the reader with quite a challenge. Even so, she still has some arresting things to say, such as: "It is said that there are three kinds of men who fail to understand women: young men, old men and middle-aged men."
As usual Fidelma gets herself ambushed and asssaulted several times while her son, 3 year old Alchu, remains left at home under the care of a nurse/foster-mother. Only Eadulf seems to spare him a thought. Fans will still enjoy it, but, except for the opening chapters, the sparkle and brightness of invention of the earlier books are understandingly fading.
The Devil's Seal (2015)
Unfortunately, the story lacks some of the suspense, dramatic action and excitement of earlier books, even although there are some eight violent deaths "if you count the boatmen" - and the usual attempt is made on Fidelma's life. Instead, there's a great deal of talk and conjecture which, in the words of King Colgu, begins to get "exceedingly boring".
The lengthy and not always all that relevant explanations of past history, customs and folklore can be quite hard to follow, as here: "Oswy wanted new missionaries to preach the Faith among the Cruthin over whose kingdom he ruled as lord .... Last year, before spring was on us, Oswy died. The Cruthin were then ruled by Drust, son of Donal, who had been a client king under Oswy. The Cruthen had long chafed under what they saw as rule by foreigners, and now they rose up in rebellion .... Things were also changing in Oswy's kingdom. There was a confusion of sub-kings of Deira and Northumbria, each vying for power. Wilfrid, who had led the pro-Roman faction at the great debate at Streonshalh, had obtained almost a king-like power. He began ensuring the removal of many of those who were of the old Columban Church, like Bishop Chad. Presumably he wanted them removed from any position where they might harm his Roman party. Even Oswy's wife, Eanfleda, and her daughter had fled for safety into the abbey of the dead King's relative, Hilda,who also still favours the teaching of Colmcille. Apparently, Wilfrid had full permission of Theodore of Canterbury to pursue these policies, and now Theodore had designated Wilfrid as Bishop of Northumbria."
it was more interesting too when Fidelma still had a religious vocation even if she was "always better suited to law". Even so, she is quite ready to turn down the position of Chief Brehon because she prefers "to be involved in administering the law." It is with people that she (rightly) thinks her strength lies so she is "content to remain an advocate." But she proves a better inquisitor than detective, for in this story her chief suspect manages to get himself murdered.
As you would expect from this author, there are still interesting parts as when Eadulf's unpleasant brother Egric fails to impress Fidelma's four-year-old son Alchu, and there is also a gripping, indeed quite horrifying, description of an amputation carried out by Eadulf. Eadulf, despite his Christian calling, seems quite happy to reassure his dying brother that "If you truly believe in the house of Vali, you will speed yourself to Asgard (Woden 's castle), little brother. Woden will be waiting for you ...."
This book marks a real return to form and, once Eadulf gets kidnapped, certainly builds up the suspense. it makes an exciting read. It is interesting too to learn more about Fidelma, who admits that it was a mistake for her to have ever joined the religious just because at the time she "needed some security in life." She can get very sarcastic when talking to her brother, King Colgu: "It was not the first time that Eadulf had witnessed a sibling spat between the two red-haired offspring of King Failbe Flann. They both had short tempers (and) did not tolerate fools gladly." She can be impatient too and, when she makes a mistake and gets angry with herself, is liable to get angry with other people too. She seems a very real human being, if not always an entirely attractive one - but it comes as a surprise when she is referred to as still being "a young woman". She must wear her years well, particularly after all the extraordinary adventures she has been through!
|The Sister Fidelma UK paperback covers are all designed by the same artist, Lee Gibbons. They are not only highly appropriate but are immediately recognisable. A really attractive design.
The equivalent American paperback cover looksmuch more cluttered.
The original hardback dust jacket. The lettering seems to block out the most interesting part of the picture. Not as stylish as the UK paperback version.