Recently widowed Lady Kathryn is struggling with paying the king’s taxes and the church's tithes and keeping her estate from going to ruin so when the local abbot asks her to take on a lodger and his daughter she welcomes the chance to gain a protector and some extra coin to add to her purse. The lodger is Finn the Illuminator, a master craftsman employed by the church to work on the approved texts and appears to be a safe addition to the household. But all is not as it seems – Finn’s secret project is the forbidden English translation of the Bible and this work can cost him and anyone who knows about it their heads. Things become even more complicated when the body of a murdered monk is found and when suspicion falls on one of her household Kathryn must decide who to protect.
Freedom is the main theme here and the author explores it from a number of different angles. There’s the freedom of reading the Bible in your own language and worshiping without the need for a priest. There’s the freedom of writing our thoughts down in whatever language we please regardless of the subject of our writings. There’s the freedom to be a woman without a man by her side and not have everyone she encounters try to take advantage of her just because she is a woman and as a result isn’t able to stand up for herself properly. There’s the freedom to marry whoever we choose and their social standing and religion having no bearing on the situation. How easily we take these things for granted and don’t even pause to consider when we open our New World Translation of the Scripture that there was a time when people could lose their lives for having such a volume in their possession.
A variation on the theme is the power of ideas with freedom at their core. Finn is a simple man, he isn’t wealthy or famous and he isn’t trying to change anyone’s thinking but inevitably he does. By living his life according to his beliefs and speaking about them he affects the way several people see the world and gives the gentle push they didn’t even know they needed to begin living without, or despite, fear of the consequences just because they believe in their vision of what is right and wrong.
I really enjoyed the characters here, sometimes the secondary ones even more than the protagonists. Half-Tom, Magda and Agnes are just too lifelike and colorful to ignore and they give some extra spice to the story and allow for the nobility to reveal sides of their characters that otherwise would have stayed hidden. Kathryn was my favorite character of them all because of how strong and selfless she is and because when trapped between a rock and a hard place she finds a way to ensure freedom for herself and those she loves. Hers was a rather ingenious solution and I can’t help but admire her for it.
This book is perfect for a rainy weekend when there’s not much to do other than curl up with a thoroughly good story and enjoy the unhurried pace and the interesting characters. I must admit that the first half of the book was a bit too sluggish for my taste, I like there to be more excitement, more “adventure” so to speak, but since the second half fully made up for that with unexpected and sometimes shocking developments and a general escalation of pace all is forgiven and I look forward to reading other books by Ms. Vantrease.