David's Reviews > Brother Cadfael's Penance

Brother Cadfael's Penance by Ellis Peters
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's review
Feb 09, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: mystery-crime-fiction-thriller, audiobook, 2003-reads
Recommended for: historical mystery buffs

Brother Cadfael novels have been set against the backdrop of the war between cousins King Stephen and Empress Maud for control of England during the twelfth century. Yet this struggle itself is not usually a central aspect of the Cadfael stories. In this, the twentieth Brother Cadfael novel (and alas, the last), the struggle is a major theme that helps drive the story forward, and Peters uses it masterfully.
A peace conference has been arranged by the archbishops at Coventry to bring an end to the war. Hugh Beringar, the Shrewsbury sheriff and dear friend of Brother Cadfael, is attending as a loyal subject of King Stephen. When Brother Cadfael learns that several prisoners are being held in secret without being offered for ransom, and that one of those prisoners may be his son, Olivier de Bretagne, he begs the abbot’s leave to attend the conference and bargain for Olivier’s release. The abbot warns Cadfael to go the conference, but no further, in his search.
Cadfael’s son, Olivier, resulted from his love with a Syrian woman during his service in the Middle East during the Crusades. This was years before his entry into the cloister. Peters had introduced Olivier to an unsuspecting Cadfael in an earlier novel, The Virgin in the Ice.
Accompanying Hugh and Cadfael on the journey is a young valiant, Yves Hugonin, Olivier’s brother-in-law. Yves exhibits the hot-blooded impulsiveness of his youth and during their entrance to the meeting, draws sword on a nobleman who had traitorously switched allegiances to Stephen. While that situation ends without bloodshed, later that night, Hugonin finds the body of that same nobleman stabbed dead and is accused of the murder himself. Cadfael sets out to investigate the murder and prove Yves innocent, and the trail leads him to a castle some distance away Shrewsbury. There, Olivier is being held by Lord Philip, the nephew and enemy of Empress Maud. To gain Olivier’s freedom, Cadfael offers himself as ransom.
Peters uses Brother Cadfael’s Penance as a brilliant study of loyalty. She raises the issue of how competing loyalties can be reconciled: family loyalty, that of a father and son; loyalty of allegiance and fealty to one’s ruler, or loyalty to an oath taken to God? Each alternative is artfully considered and the difficulties wonderfully described in heartrending detail.
Cadfael is not the only one with difficult decisions about loyalty. The brother and a loyalist of Empress Maud, Lord Robert, is the father of Lord Philip. They are on opposite sides in the war, and Philip considers his own ideas on loyalty when he witnesses Cadfael’s devotion to Olivier, and the sacrifices he’s willing to make regarding his worldly body and his soul.
In this final installment in the Brother Cadfael series, the murder mystery takes a back seat, but is still cannily solved by Brother Cadfael. It is somewhat of a surprise, but well tied into the story overall.
Peters’ prose is elegant, beautifully paced, and utterly convincing for the period. Her presentation of the historical setting, and the customs and habits of the times are expertly woven into the story.
Stephen Thorne provides a wonderful, resonant, reading of the work. His theatrical training and experience makes him an excellent choice for bringing Peters’ characters to life. Thorne switches between narrative and the various voices smoothly and never interferes with the telling of the story. The emotions he conveys are convincing and empathetic. It is sad that there will be no further Brother Cadfael novels for him to read.

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