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In 12th-century England, times are turbulent. Tensions between the lower class Saxon English and ruling class Norman nobles simmer, and The Anarchy is at its peak. This debut historical novel opens in the middle of these times, in a small town with a young boy, Wimer. He is a bright boy but, as a Saxon peasant, has few opportunities. His luck changes when he comes to the notice of the local priest, who sponsors his attendance at a school in Norwich. From there, Wimer has the option of becoming a monk or a chaplain. He decides to become a chaplain and go out into the world. He makes a name for himself in the service of Hugh Bigod, and is able to leave that house and work directly for Henry II as the High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk. In the course of discharging his duties, he runs afoul of Thomas Becket and is excommunicated, twice by Becket and once by the Pope. He also has a doomed love for Ida de Toscny, Henry’s ward. Eventually, Wimer is reinstated into the Church but in order to feel truly free of his mortal sins, both from his rifts with his religious superiors and because of his love for Ida, Wimer decides he needs to return to a life devoted to the Church and make an act of spectacular penitence.
Sheriff and Priest was a delightful novel. There are several novels available which tell the tale of The Anarchy, all told from the perspective of Henry II or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or perhaps from various other nobles. Getting the perspective of a man who began life as a Saxon peasant is a unique take, and a refreshing change. Wimer is a complex and sympathetic figure. He overthinks just about everything and makes life a lot harder for himself in many ways, which is a very believable character trait. Some of the secondary characters could have been fleshed out a little more, but the people readers encountered the most were not flat and were developed enough for the purpose. The only thing that was a little jarring was the reference to Thomas a’Becket. He wasn’t referred to as such during his life, and not until at least the Post-Reformation. Nitpicky thing, yes, but noticeable. Overall, though, this novel was full of wonderful medieval detail and flowed swiftly across the page. Highly recommended.
© Kristen McQuinn
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