The House of the Red Slayer

The House of the Red Slayer - Paul Doherty I decided to give the series a second go after not really enjoying the first, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn't particularly enjoy the second book in this series either. I really wanted to, and tried hard, but in the end, no. I even put it down for several months before deciding to finish the final third of it, in the off-chance it got better. It didn't.

You can read my previous review for a full explanation of what bothers me about this series, despite loving the genre intensely most of the time. I think the short version is simply this. It's not really a historical mystery.

It looks like one, certainly. Has all the trappings, medieval town, smelly streets, religious friar as a protagonist, the occasional historical tidbit thrown in (like a whore shaved bald and marched about the streets with a sign around her neck, or the suicide buried at a crossroad with a stake in his heart). But it's all just a set, like an elaborate costume party where everyone dresses in period costume but are still themselves underneath.

That's what has been niggling at me as I read these books - the author completely fails to adjust his own modern attitude to suit the time he is writing about, and it comes out not just in some of the characters, but nearly all of them.

It's difficult to write a sympathetic protagonist with an alien viewpoint to the reader's, which is one of the reasons so many protagonists in historical fiction are themselves quite exceptional. A perfect example of this is Matthew Bartholomew, from Susanna Gregory's excellent series of the same name. He is a middle ages doctor with a far more modern (though not entirely modern) outlook on medicine and life. He doesn't worry overmuch about astrological charts, he doesn't bleed his patients, performs surgery when requried, and he even washes his hands (shock of shocks).

The reason for all this? He studied and travelled with an Arabic master; the Arabs at that time had forgotten more medicine than the English knew and things like washing and anatomy were not unknown or anathema to them. Matthew pays a massive price for his oddity however, and throughout the series has been attacked (verbally and physically), accused of witchcraft, and often been in danger for his life, simply for his differing views.

Contrast this with Brother Athelstan, a very modern thinking man - who has absolutely no reason to be, at least none given in the first two books. His attitude is very unlike the prevailing at the time, particularly for a man with a religious vocation, a member of a strict order. Likewise, he never suffers for his oddity, but rather most everyone else either doesn't notice, or shares his views. Those close to him, his allies, all have very modern outlooks on the world, and it grates terribly against the suspension of disbelief.

I wont rule out reading book three sometime in the future, to see if it grabs me. It seems a shame since Doherty is very competent, even clever, in his mysteries themselves and the writing. The characters can be quite endearing at times, and I find myself buying into the soap opera when it comes to the struggles of their lives, particularly when it comes to Cranston the coroner. However, I wont be hurrying back, for I find the irritation of the modern characters in historical skin outweighs enjoyment of the plot at this point.