This is the first volume of an historical mystery series sent in medieval England. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the two main characters are Magdalene, the mistress of a whorehouse known as the Old Priory Guesthouse, and Sir Bellamy of Itchem, who serves the Bishop of London. The whorehouse is a high-class one, clean and discreet, and it is literally located at the former guesthouse of a priory, and rent is paid to the local bishop (much to the dismay of certain monks a the nearby church). Magdalene is not an ordinary whore (and this is how these women are referred to in the book - they mince no words); she can read and write, and she is clearly from an upper class (if mysterious) background.
When a man is brutally murdered on the very steps of the church, the residents of the Guest House are immediately suspected - after all, they are sinners, so why wouldn't they murder a man? Perhaps to prevent him from confessing after visiting their shameful house and thereby damning his soul? Not all the residents of the church are so quick to blame the whores, but those who do are very vocal about it. Magdalene worries about her women and their living, and when Sir Bellamy of Itchem is sent to investigate the murder, Magdalene joins forces with him in order to clear the Old Priory Guesthouse and its residents of suspicion. The stakes are raised when it is discovered that the victim was a Papal messenger, and Magdalene has some secrets that she does not want to reveal, even to the handsome and charismatic Sir Bellamy.
Politics, intrigue, scandal, hidden agendas - it's all here, and the tight, skillful storytelling, vivid historical setting and fascinating characters make for a compelling read. Despite the fact that the story is set in a whorehouse, there are no steamy sex scenes. True, it is their job, and it is discussed as matter-of-factly as people who work together would discuss whatever business they are involved in, and it was often amusing, particularly as Madelene's women discuss their various patrons.
The narrator of this audiobook, Nadia May, was new to me, and I found her a skillful reader, and her accents and vivid expression really added to the story. This is one of my favorite new series that I read in 2011, and I will definitely be continuing with the next books. Fans of Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death books would be sure to enjoy this series, too.
Books in the Magdalene la Batarde series:
1. A Mortal Bane
2. A Personal Devil
3. A Bone of Contention
4. Chains of Folly
A Mortal Bane (#1 in the Magdalene la Batarde series) by Roberta Gellis; narrated by Nadia May (Blackstone Audio, 2005)
Also reviewed at:
Aneca's World: "I have no idea if whores could rent from the church but I think Gellis wrote a compelling story that seemed to me with a believable medieval atmosphere."
Beth Fish Reads: "In A Mortal Bane, Gellis draws us into the world of medieval England, and we get a peek at the politics of the early church. Greed, murder, overzealous piety, politics, prejudice, and simple jealousy must all be sorted out before the murderer can be found."