A Gift of Sanctuary

by Candace Robb

Published by St. Martin's Press

320 pages, 1998

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A Wales of a Tale

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Nothing is more likely to complicate an already intricately woven medieval mystery than a cast of characters bearing eminently mispronounceable Welsh names. Tangwystl, daughter of Gruffyd ap Goronwy? Dafydd ap Gwilym Gam ap Gwilym ab Einion Fawr? Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri ap Gruffud? ("Ap" and "ab," by the way, both mean "son of.")

About a third of the way through Candace Robb's Wales-based sixth novel, A Gift of Sanctuary, as my head was aching more with each new multi-monikered player's introduction onto the story's stage, I resorted to concocting diminutives for everybody -- "Tang," for Tangwystl, "Daffy" for Dafydd," etc. Getting the facts behind one's tale correct is one thing -- and Robb does a consistently excellent job of that -- but having to burden the reader with such names as these, while essential to creating verisimilitude, becomes a bit much. I had to choose: either distribute nicknames or dispense with reading this book altogether. And I didn't wish to put down A Gift of Sanctuary. While not quite up to the standards of two earlier Robb books, The Nun's Tale (1995) and The King's Bishop (1996), Sanctuary nonetheless crafts an enthralling yarn from the robust history of a land that remains terra incognita to most readers.

The year is 1370, and Owen Archer -- the one-eyed soldier-sleuth who first appeared in The Apothecary Rose (1993) -- has left his wife Lucie and children in York, England, for a journey to his long-unseen homeland of Wales. There he is to help recruit archers for John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who fears that France's King Charles V is planning to launch an assault on England. Accompanying him on this lengthy trip are his ailing father-in-law, Sir Robert D'Arby, and the wonderfully peevish Brother Michaelo, secretary to the Archbishop of York, both of whom are on a pilgrimage to the renowned shrine at St. David's, in Wales' southwestern corner. Also tagging along is Geoffrey Chaucer -- yes, that Geoffrey Chaucer -- who in 1370 was still a civil servant (he hadn't yet completed his first great poem) and is charged in this novel with reporting on the assignment of troops to Lancaster's Welsh castles. "The French," Robb writes, "always looked on the southwestern coast of Wales as a good place for spies to slip into the country, and also as a possible landing area for an invasion army. Early in the year, [England's] King Edward [III] had ordered that all castles along the coast were to be sufficiently garrisoned to defend themselves in an attack."

Like British author Edward Marston, whose adventures of itinerant "Domesday" census takers (The Wolves of Savernake, The Dragons of Archenfield, etc.) examine the poly-tiered society of 11th-century England as much as they explore any mysterious crimes, Robb uses A Gift of Sanctuary in part to illuminate the prejudices and economic divisions in 14th-century Wales. An English principality only since its conquest by Edward I in the late 1200s, Wales had been lulled into loyalty by Edward's decision in 1301 to confer upon his first-born son the title of Prince of Wales, but the Welsh never lost their independent-mindedness and would revolt again in the 15th century. In the meantime, the English looked on the Welsh as an inferior people. This fact sparks a neat undercurrent of conflict between the native-born Captain Archer and some of the narrow-minded English "occupiers" he encounters on the Welsh peninsula. One noteworthy exchange occurs early in the story, when Chaucer and Archer confer with a blindly bigoted castle constable:

"You have trouble with the Welsh?" Geoffrey asked [the constable].

"Not while I have been here, but we are always ready. And we have no Welsh in the garrison. They are a queer race, barefooted and barelegged most of the time, and the shiftiest shave their heads so they may run through the brush more easily, but leave hair on their upper lips to show it is their choice to be thus shorn. A sly, violent people. There is no telling when they will turn -- begging your forgiveness, Captain. But you are Lancaster's man or he would not have trusted you here, so I doubt you take it amiss."

Owen had meant to keep his counsel, but this rotten-toothed man with his foul-smelling breath and rude manner was more than he could bear. "You look equally unsavory to my people, Constable. And as you were never invited into our land, I cannot see why you would expect courteous co-operation. But no, I do not take it amiss, for I am sure that rather than thinking for yourself you merely echo the opinion of others."

However, the real fireworks begin after Archer fails to locate John de Reine, son of Sir John Lascelles, the steward of Lancaster's Welsh properties. The pair had been scheduled to meet at Carreg Cennen Castle in eastern Wales, but when Archer finds no sign of the man there, he decides to push his company on to the west and St. David's, only to discover that de Reine has turned up at that monastic settlement, instead -- murdered, his corpse deposited beside the Tower Gate. Although the Captain would prefer not to involve himself in this sordid matter, the bishop of St. David's insists that he interrupt his mission and return de Reine's body to his father. So, leaving Sir Robert and Brother Michaelo at St. David's, Archer, Chaucer, and a rather furtive vicar, Father Edern, set off for Lascelles' Castle Cydweli, on Wales' southern shore. (Fortunately, Robb provides maps enough to make sense of these peregrinations.)

As is to be expected from an Owen Archer adventure, a single death is never enough. Thus it isn't long after the sleuth and his versifying companion arrive at Cydweli that there's another killing, followed by the disappearance of Father Edern together with Lascelles' pulchritudinous wife Tangwystl. Soon Archer is up to his last operating eyeball in questions with no obvious answers: Who is behind these slayings? Do they have anything to do with efforts by foreign intriguers to fan the flames of Welsh resistance against the dominating English? How does the situation relate to Tangwystl's father, who may or may not be a traitor, but was deeply involved in a monetary scam? And what could all of this possibly have to do with a young pilgrim who, in the book's opening chapter, was found bloodied in the surf of distant Whitesands Bay and given shelter by the celebrated bard Dafydd ap Gwilym?

See what I meant about an "intricately woven" yarn? And I haven't even mentioned Sanctuary's secondary plotline, in which Archer -- after having been away for 15 years, first as a local soldier and then in England -- reintroduces himself to what is left of his illiterate but proud family. Nor have I outlined events as they transpired at St. David's, where Sir Robert and Brother Michaelo stayed to visit the shrine (a poignant episode that nicely enhances Michaelo's appeal as a subordinate character in this series).

Remarkably, Robb succeeds in holding all of this together... if sometimes just barely, as at the tale's end, when her assorted story threads tangle in a flurry of hard-to-follow revelations and the pursuit of a traitor who's responsible for much anguish. Robb's skill at penning clever, concise dialogue maintains reader interest the whole way through, as does her sharp eye for sites and legends that heap drama and eeriness onto her arcane period settings. If A Gift of Sanctuary just didn't try to cover so much ground -- both figuratively and literally -- in the company of so many oddly named characters, it would probably be more easily digested. But even as it is, this is an accomplished work, the kind that rivals might claim as their own if nobody is watching closely.

Among the ever-expanding ranks of wordsmiths sketching mysteries upon the background of Europe's Middle Ages, Candace Robb stands out for her authenticity of detail, her fine blending of historical and imagined figures, and her talent at building murderous motivations from the distinctive social and political structures of a time so long past. For those of us who developed some interest in medieval times during our school years, but could barely tolerate The Canterbury Tales and similar pieces of Old English literature, it's a real pleasure to pick up one of Robb's Owen Archer novels and finally start to understand what guys like Chaucer were trying to tell us about the world they knew more than half a millennium ago. | November 1998


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.


You can get more background on Robb and her Owen Archer series on the author's Web site.