Girl In a Red Tunic by Alys Clare

In medieval 1193, while the King, Richard the Lionheart is held captive by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, many people in England find themselves short of food and provisions, due to the efforts made to raise the ransom for the King’s release.  In Hawkenlye Abbey, things are no different, and Abbess Helewise is struggling to make ends meet.  So she is delighted when her son Leofgar arrives for a visit with his wife Rohaise and their young son Timus.  However, it soon becomes clear that Leofgar and Rohaise are hiding something; Rohaise is terrified of her own shadow, and Timus barely speaks.  As the family stay at the Abbey, their states of mind improve and things seem to be getting better.  However, when a man is found hung, strung from a tree near to the Abbey, Leofgar, Rohaise and Timus leave the premises unannounced and are nowhere to be found.

Aided by her faithful friend, the Knight, Sir Josse D’Acquin, Helewise sets out to solve the mystery of the man’s hanging and her own son’s disappearance.  In doing so, she has to look into her own past, when she was a wife and mother to the handsome Ivo, and ask herself if her husband’s family were really the good people that she believed them to be.

This book is one of a series set around Abbey Hawkenlye, with the Abbess at it’s centre.  However, this was easy to read as a stand-alone novel, and I did not feel that lack of knowledge of the background of the characters hindered my reading at all.

The story moved along quickly, without ever feeling too rushed.  It is an undemanding read, which made it perfect for curling up with to relax.  The mystery at the heart of the story was intriguing enough to hold my interest throughout, and I found myself engrossed enough to consider reading the other books in the series.

The sense of the period in which the book was set was conveyed well, but this book was really more about the events which happened, rather than portraying life in the medieval period.  For instance, the situation with the captivity of Richard the Lionheart was mentioned only at the beginning of the story, and in no way really effected the events in the book.  I also enjoyed the parts where Helewise reminisced about her past – for readers of the whole series, I imagine this may have filled in a lot of gaps about the character’s life.

Having said that, the characterisation wasn’t brilliant.  Josse was extremely likeable and was probably my favourite character throughout the book.  However, there was little exploration of the other characters.  However, this did not detract from my enjoyment.

Overall then, this is a leisurely read, and I don’t believe that a special interest in the medieval period is necessary for this book to be enjoyed.  I would certainly read more by this author.

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