Yesterday, I finished reading the medieval England book that I had mentioned previously in the blog. I enjoyed it, and had read the other book in the series back in January. Both books were good subway reading: “The Queen’s Man” and “Cruel as the Grave,” by Sharon Kay Penman (the books’ Amazon links refer to the paperback versions; the author’s official website looked nice, I think).

The series follows the adventures of 20-year old Justin de Quincey, the illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester in England, in the years 1192 to 1193. In “The Queen’s Man,” Justin becomes (what else?) “The Queen’s Man,” serving the dowager queen of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Justin accidentally came across the murder of a loyalist of the queen. The loyalist had information on the capture of the queen’s son, the King Richard the Lionheart; Eleanor asks Justin to investigate the murder – was it to prevent the information from getting to the queen? Was it because the victim had a nutty family who contracted the murderer to do it; or because of something else entirely? Meanwhile, Justin becomes entangled in the craziness that is medieval England, with spies and other double agents. Who shall he trust? Prince John, Richard’s brother, also makes an appearance and hovers in the background; he is apparently the bane of his family, and has his issues about his family (probably a parallel to Justin’s issues with his father; neither man seems to get it that maybe their respective parent isn’t as horrible as they believe).

“Cruel as the Grave” takes place a month later; Justin’s settling nicely in London, and the Queen’s assigning him to get a message to John, who’s trying to keep himself inside Windsor Castle to make a point. Meanwhile, Justin is trying to solve who murdered a 15-year old girl, whose only crime was that she fell in love with someone outside her class – and would this be the reason for her murder?

As mysteries go, “Cruel as the Grave” was a stronger one than “The Queen’s Man” – although the case there was easy to solve (I thought), at least one gets to watch Justin be the detective. “The Queen’s Man” seemed more like an unfolding coincidence, even though there were plenty of suspects; Justin seems to have incidentally figured out the situation. But, both are good yarns, as one follows along Justin’s journeys. The characters come alive, and don’t feel anachronistic at all. And, the context feels right – Penman notes how the Saxons spoke English and the Normans spoke French (and thus the upper crust spoke French), and yet she doesn’t bog down on “thou” or “thee” or whatnot. Justin is also a sweet protagonist, even when he acts tough. Not perfect, he matures in each situation he gets himself into.

Penman clearly did her research and I like her style. Yeah, so she’s an ex-tax attorney, but she has an imagination that works nicely.

Other reading? Note the following:

NY Times article on the Chinatown vans was educational , so to speak.

NY Times on the impending odd NYS election; getting ready for Super Tuesday?

NY1 (the all-news tv cable station) has an interesting series on academia, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

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