brother cadfael's penance
read for: historical fiction challenge
*may contain spoilers*
The Earl of Leicester's courier came riding over the bridge that spanned the Severn, and into the town of Shrewsbury, somewhat past noon on a day at the beginning of November, with three months' news in his saddle-roll.
The last adventure of the series sees Brother Cadfael embark on a personal mission. King Stephen and Empress Maud show no signs of ending their civil war and after the loss of a battle, many of the Empress' men are imprisoned in the castles of the King's men, most available for ransom, but some not. Cadfael discovers one of those men to be Olivier de Bretagne, the son he had only recently learned of. Cadfael travels with Hugh to a peace conference between the two factions in the hopes of discovering his son's whereabouts. While there, a murder takes place and an old friend of Cadfael's is accused, Yves Hugonin, now the brother-in-law of Olivier. Yves is taken prisoner by the same man whispered to be holding Olivier. Now Cadfael has two men to rescue, but his leave from his duties does not extend past the conference. Cadfael must choose between the home he loves and a son who has no knowledge of his father.
It's taken me a long time to get around to reviewing this. To be honest, I'm devastated that I read the last book. There's no more Cadfael. I've read all the books and seen all the Mystery! episodes (you should really rebroadcast those, Masterpiece Mystery). When I read the last page I seriously considered starting the first book over again. But no...I am finished. It's time to find a new mystery series (preferably one starring a Benedictine monk with his best friend the Sheriff of Shropshire).
This installment is a little odd in that the murder mystery plays a serious second banana to the story of Cadfael rescuing Olivier. This was somewhat similar to Summer of the Danes except in this case I was super enthralled with by Cadfael's rescue mission so I didn't really mind/notice the lack of mystery.
The best part of the book, for me, was the odd friendship that developed between Cadfael and Phillip Fitz Robert, Olivier and Yves' captor. I think it's a testament to Peters' skill as an author that while Phillip could have easily been nothing but a monster, instead his relationships with Cadfael, Olivier, and even his father show him to be so much more. He turns out to be an extremely complicated and intelligent man, and one who was quite likable. Yes, his treatment of Olivier was unfair, but when it's understood it almost comes across as reasonable. His motives behind his more treasonous actions excellently add to his complexity. He is not a traitor for personal gain but for peace - anything to end the bloodshed. His grey thinking can't be understood by the black and white Olivier, making their relationship especially tense, but is understood by Cadfael. I was glad when he let Olivier go and then Olivier returned the favor by rescuing him from Empress Maud.
I was especially moved by one particular moment in the book. Empress Maud had attacked Fitz Robert's castle and when all was definitely lost and himself severely wounded, Fitz Robert allowed Cadfael to let Olivier out. The two then devised a plan to escape with Fitz Robert. It is during this meeting that Cadfael and Olivier come together both in full knowledge of their father/son relationship for the first time, and Olivier has to ask him for help into his armour and says "If I am going, as well go quickly. This once, my father, will you be my squire and help me to arm?" and I don't know. I was moved.
Lastly, I felt the ending was the perfect way to close out the series. To be honest, I wish there could have been one last scene between Cadfael and Hugh, but I don't think it could have been worked in. It would have been disrespectful and out of character to visit him before the Abbot, and it would have been anti-climactic after Abbot Radulfus' simple and beautiful "Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir." So I'll take it as it is and just know in my heart that Cadfael and Hugh had many more adventures together.
If you haven't read these books, you need to immediately.