If you’re anything like me, you think of the Crusades as a period when life was rough, opportunities for women were rare, religious and wealthy men were the powerful ones in society, and people believed in things like werewolves and witches. That might be somewhat true, but Philippa Gregory’s new series, Order of Darkness, seeks to make the medieval age more accessible and complex than our history books might have us believe.
"[T]he rich world the author paints [is compelling]... Gregory certainly does make you want to take a second look at everything you thought the time of the Crusades to be."
The first book in the series, CHANGELING, begins with the story of Luca Vero, a 17-year-old aspiring monk who has been accused of heresy. But Luca’s “heresy” is his curiosity and talent for calculations, research and original thought. He is recruited to travel through Europe, along with an older monk, Brother Peter, as overseer, and Luca’s childhood friend, a servant, in order to document “crimes” and unknown phenomena in small villages and estates.
As Luca sets out on his journey --- his only orders being to obey Brother Peter, who himself has just been given sealed letters with instructions on when to open them --- we move to the world of Lady Isolde, a teenage girl who recently has been orphaned, along with her brother. When her father’s will is read, Isolde is shocked to find that she has inherited nothing, and must choose to marry or join a nearby nunnery as its Lady Abbess. When her brother’s leery friend makes a pass at her, Isolde begrudgingly chooses what she understands to be at least a safer fate --- taking the vows of a nun. She and her childhood friend and maid, Ishraq, move to the nunnery, and it isn’t long before unusual circumstances there prompt the arrival of Luca and his companions to find the root of the alleged “madness” from which the nuns begin suffering.
When Luca arrives, he finds his ally at the abbey to be the Lady Almoner, who distrusts Isolde and suspects Ishraq, who is a Moor, to be a witch working with Isolde to bring about the ruin of the abbey. The more Luca looks into the madness, and the more secret doings he finds in the nunnery, the more it looks like Isolde is guilty.
Contrary to what the above would make you think, CHANGELING is not a plot-driven book. In fact, it is less than compelling as the beginning of an already-established series, as the end of the book comes too quickly and easily and feels unfairly won. What is compelling, though, is the rich world the author paints. Known for her historical fiction based in heavy research into the Tudor period of England, Philippa Gregory says that this book is a departure from those earlier novels published for adults because it “is based on four purely fictional young people, and the world they live in reflects the historical reality of their times, but of course nobody but a fictional heroine has such an exciting day-to-day life!” While “exciting” may be up for debate, Gregory certainly does make you want to take a second look at everything you thought the time of the Crusades to be.
While we might think of Isolde’s fate in the nunnery as the end of her life, Gregory shows how abbeys were also one of the few places where women could be educated, put in charge of their day-to-day life, run a business to sustain their way of life, and live largely outside the influence of the male-dominated world. Ishraq is another unique character, and I hope Gregory can dig deeper into her position of a Moor in western Europe, as an educated woman in medieval times, and as the very close friend of a woman of noble birth, later on in the series.
While CHANGELING is not the most exciting of Gregory’s books, it should appeal to fans of historical fiction, whether you are familiar with her other works or not. Where the main characters sometimes feel flat, the supporting cast is full of life. I look forward to seeing the pace pick up in future installments.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gomez on June 27, 2012