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Brenda Rickman Vantrease – The Illuminator

January 15, 2008

7. The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vantrease (2005)

Length: 432 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 10 January 2008
Finished: 15 January 2008

Summary: In late 14th-century Britain, everyone – peasant and noble alike – are being torn between the powers of the Church and the King. Lady Kathryn of Blackingham, a proud and independent widow, is no exception – she must navigate the shifting currents of political and ecclesiastical power and attempt to keep Blackingham Manor solvent and intact to serve as inheritance for her twin sons – no easy task when the King is levying new taxes to pay for war in France, and the Church is extorting money to pay for masses for her dead husband’s soul. When she acquires lodgers – Finn, an illuminator working for the local abbot, and his daughter – the she cannot turn away the extra money. However, by allowing them into her house – and her heart – she’s involved herself and her family in more than she was bargaining for, for Finn is also engaged in illuminating an illicit and heretical English translation of the Bible.

Review: This was a very engaging book, although a little uneven. The first half was perfect brain-fluff historical fiction along the lines of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl – less sex and scandal, more religious turmoil, but similar tone and similar escapist-reading pleasure. The second half just seemed to devolve into one bad thing after another happening to the main characters, each one more tragic and more random than the last, building up to an ending that was pat, unsatisfying, and not the treatment that the characters or the story deserved. It was very compellingly written, however – even in the second half, I always wanted to go back and read more. The world was well-built, with a convincing but not intrusive amount of period details blended in.

The character development wasn’t anything outstanding, although again, the first half of the book was far superior to the second half. Some characters (Colin and Alfred, in particular) were never really fleshed out and were essentially plot devices, while other potentially more interesting characters weren’t given enough space to really develop their stories. One thing that I did appreciate was the treatment of the religious issues. I’m typically fairly sensitive to stories that are written from an overtly Christian viewpoint, but for some reason, this one didn’t bother me – perhaps because the author managed to fit her own viewpoints into the mouths of characters where they felt natural. There is some strong anti-Semitism, that while it is probably pretty reflective of the actual viewpoints in the late 1300s, was still a little off-putting to read. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s not a great book, but I think fans of historical fiction and religious history would probably find enough here to make it worth their while – although I wouldn’t necessarily be in a rush to move it to the top of your TBR pile.

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  • p. 7: “Twelve peals called the monks to sext.” – the fourth of the seven canonical hours, or the service for it, originally fixed for the sixth hour of the day taken as noon.
  • p. 8: “His shoulders ached from balancing the bulky pack, and his wits were weary from sparring with runaway villeins and laborers who indulged in a bit of dwarf-baiting to break the boredom of their own journeys.” – one of a class of feudal serfs who held the legal status of freemen in their dealings with all people except their lord.
  • p. 12: “Finn recognized immediately the cell-like appurtenance of a hermit, attached to but not contained within the church.” – something added to another, more important thing; an appendage.
  • p. 28: “This document charged that the Church was filled with apostasy, even in its highest offices, and called for the withholding of funds from immoral and negligent clergy.” – a total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc.
  • p. 37: “He was expected back at Norwich by compline on Monday.” – the last of the seven canonical hours, or the service for it, originally occurring after the evening meal but now usually following immediately upon vespers.
  • p. 61: “You’re making mortrewes, I’ll wager. My grandmother used to make that.” – spoonable dishes best described as savory puddings made from boiled meat, poultry, or fish, ground in a mortar, mixed with some of the cooking broth, and thickened with bread crumbs.
  • p. 123: “That gouged too. Like an ill-tied knot in his braies.” – a type of undergarment.
  • p. 170: “To do so would put a quietus to their already troubled relationship.” – a finishing stroke; anything that effectually ends or settles.
  • p. 170: “The board would have to be laid in the great hall with souse and smoked fish, and saffron cakes and mince pies, and of course the little dried biffins.” – pork trimmings chopped and pickled and jelled; dried apple, flat in appearance and soft to the touch.
  • p. 287: “But instead, she fetched the cerecloth from a cupboard and started to sew.” – cloth coated or impregnated with wax so as to be waterproof.
  • p. 301: “The Paraclete had departed from her, leaving a paucity of comfort.” – the Holy Spirit.
  • p. 309: “And Magda enjoyed watching the long scythes swishing through the rye like Morris dancers.” – English folk dance based on rhythmic stepping and using props such as sticks, swords, or handkerchiefs.
  • p. 393: “Last night, before — before she went to sleep, she signed her deeds to us. She paid a corrody.” – an allowance of meat, drink, or clothing due from an abbey or other religious house for the sustenance the king’s servants.
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