Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Excalibur Murders - J.M.C. Blair

The Excalibur Murders
J.M.C. Blair
Berkley Prime Crime


This is a mystery set in Camelot during the reign of King Arthur. What makes it different from so many other takes on the time and people is the treatment of the characters. King Arthur’s intentions were to unite all the tribes of England; to make England a power on par with courts of Europe. He managed to conquer all of England, but uniting and civilizing the people is a different matter. The knights here are your average illiterate, superstitious landowners who devote their lives to battle. Morgan Le Fay is a woman born into an age in which the matriarchies are all but extinct; who holds what power she can through tricks and playing on the fears of the people. The maid Nimue, who left Morgan’s court and disguises herself as a boy, serves as Merlin’s assistant.

Merlin is King Arthur’s main advisor. Contrary to popular opinion throughout England, he is not a wizard or a sorcerer, or in any way involved in any kind of magic. He doesn’t believe in magic. He believes in science. He is a scholar. That alone sets him apart from most of the rest of Arthur’s court. When Arthur tells Merlin that another knight has found the fabled Stone of Bran, Merlin scoffs openly. Bran was a god. Legend says that the stone is imbued with mystical powers. Arthur’s hope is that it will bring peace to the land and also to his broken marriage. Merlin doesn’t believe it for an instant. But Arthur will not be deterred and plans a celebration to display the Stone of Bran for his court. He even commissions a silversmith from Cornwall to create a shrine for the Stone.

On the appointed day, knights and nobles from all over the kingdom attend. Morgan attends as well, in her role of high priestess. She’s promised to perform some rite for the Stone. Merlin suspects it’s all hokum, but it will make the people happy. Among the other guests are Guenevere and her consort, the attractive but dim Lancelot; the former king of Cornwall, Mark; and mad old Pellenore, the king who originally built Camelot and now wanders its halls, fighting off imaginary beasts. Arthur sends a squire to retrieve the shrine with the Stone, but he doesn’t return. The squire and the guards on duty are all dead, hacked with a sword. Both the Stone in its shrine and Excalibur are missing.

What starts out looking like a murder and theft quickly widens in scope as Merlin investigates. The author does a truly wonderful job of depicting life as it might have been like at the time. There’s a clear separation between the servants and the nobility, so Merlin uses a squire (the dead squire’s twin brother) to talk to the servants. Merlin, Nimue (always in disguise) and a female knight called Britomart, visit the courts of the noble suspects. Politics, revenge, rivalries, anger, and superstition all play a part – both in the case and in the everyday lives of the characters. The characters are quite realistic and their reactions to events and complex emotions bring them to life. This is that rare novel that captivated me immediately; I had a hard time putting it down for any reason. THE EXCALIBUR MURDERS is the start of what promises to be a truly entertaining series. The next installment is out this month. Watch this space.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22253-9 (paperback)


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