by Sharon Tucker
Details at the end of this review on how to win a copy of Jeri Westerson’s book.
Inigo Montoya insisted on going “back to the beginning” in The Princess Bride and we get to do just that in Jeri Westerson’s most recent novel, Cup of Blood. Can we be at the seventh volume in the Crispin Guest series already? I began reading the books a little over a year ago, intrigued by the notion of “medieval noir,” and curious as to how the author would make noir traditions work in the time of Richard II. In addition, I hadn’t read a book set in the 14th century since Anya Seton’s Katherine. The chance of encountering John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford again drew me in initially to the series, but I continued reading and enjoying the books despite the fact that Gaunt appears only briefly in each of the novels and also that I have yet to encounter “La Swynford,” although I have hopes…
I quickly found that I liked Westerson’s anti-hero and former knight, Crispin Guest, and his constant companion Jack Tucker, former cutpurse. According to Merriam-Webster, Guest fits the noir bill admirably, in that he has fallen from grace (from a great height, I might add), is cynical about his former life and his current role in society, is bitterly resigned to his fate, and, well, isn’t court life always morally ambiguous?
As Guest struggles on to eke out a living as a detective–called a “tracker” by his contemporaries–he remains a knight in all but name despite resignation to his loss of status. Guest lost his knighthood and lands in the abortive attempt to put John of Gaunt on the throne in place of 10-year-old Richard. The plot was curtailed in no small part by Gaunt himself, whom Guest still idolizes much as Jack Tucker idolizes Guest. In an even more bitter twist of fate, history shows Richard possessed little talent for the role fate had chosen for him and he bears a serious grudge against Guest. Guest’s other conspirators were executed for treason, but were they actually the luckier ones?
The Crispin Guest series captures the sights and sounds (and smells) of London in the 14th century. If the reader harbors a romantic view of life in the late middle ages, prepare for a strong dose of history. The plots do not center on kings, knights and ladies of the court, but instead we are caught up in the daily life of innkeepers, apprentices, and the common folk who comprise the bulk of 14th century English society. Each novel has at its center Guest’s coping with his life as it now is in contrast with his past as a ward of Gaunt’s and a landed knight. He takes abuse from everyone he once knew, from the Sheriffs of London to his former fellow nobles.
As an added point of interest, each Guest novel centers on the search for or protective detail of a holy relic or a relic of power, and in the case of Cup of Blood, and of course, it’s the Holy Grail. Westerson’s previous Guest novels have centered on plots regarding the Veil of Veronica, and the Spear of Longinus, to name but a few. They add an intriguing element to the novels’ plots and I’m always interested to see which object of veneration is chosen for of an adventure.
Cup of Blood takes us back to immediately before Guest and Tucker become confederates in London of 1384. Guest’s disgrace is more recent than in the previous novels and Tucker steals to stay alive. A Templar Knight is found dead in the tavern Guest frequents, and who should be blamed for the knight’s death but Jack Tucker? Guest is soon kidnapped by supporters of the Anti-Pope, Clement VII of Avignon, who believe he has taken what the Templar knight was purportedly carrying, the Holy Grail itself.
I enjoy the journey the Guest novels invite the reader to take with each new installment. Westerson has a knack for writing characters with whom we can readily identify and for bringing 14th century London to life. Her characters, real and imagined, live and breathe. This is historical fiction with a difference, using a 20th century literary convention (noir) to add a new dimension to history. I so look forward to the next one in the series.
To enter to win a copy of Cup of Blood, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Cup,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen August 16, 2014. U.S. residents only.
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