Penance of the Damned by Peter Tremayne is the 27th book in the Sister Fidelma series, set in Ancient Ireland, AD 671 (available July 25, 2017).
“Here we are, bereft of a good friend and counselor, and find his death could plunge the kingdom into unrest and conflict,” Colgú sighed. “Now do you see why it is so important for you to go to the fortress of the Prince of the Uí Fídgente?”
“In other words, you want me to report on the details of the events connected with poor Ségdae’s death. You want a report on who the culprit is, assess if he has been tried fairly, discover a way that we can avoid conflict among the religious, stop any talk of execution and bring the Uí Fídgente religious back to the law of the Brehons.” A wry smile formed around Fidelma’s mouth. “Anything else you wish to ask of me, brother?”
“Sister, I am relying on you and Eadulf. I can sense some mystery here. Something does not quite add up in the facts that have been related to me…”
Seventh-century Ireland is a dangerous place. Peace between kingdoms remains fragile, in danger of breaking into bloody war over the smallest of offenses.
And the murder of a renowned abbot is hardly a small offense.
The case is this: The captain of King Colgú’s personal bodyguard, Gormán, apparently murdered Colgú’s old friend and advisor Abbot Ségdae while on a passing visit to the fortress of the Prince of the Uí Fidgente—King Colgú’s longtime enemy and only recently-made ally. This was done in a locked room while a holy brother and loyal guard outside struggled to break through the door. The accused was found half-conscious on the floor beside Ségdae’s body, the bloody knife an inch from his fingertips.
The crime and guilt of Gormán appear unassailable. But Fidelma of Cashel—King Colgú’s sister, a former sister of the Faith, and a world-renowned dálaigh advocate of the law—is unconvinced. What motive is there? Why would her family’s good friend and trusted warrior suddenly murder a man he too had been close with?
Something is very wrong in the court of the Uí Fídgente.
Things get even more convoluted when Fidelma arrives at the fortress and discovers that not only has her friend been declared guilty, but he now faces execution under the new Penitential laws of the Faith. The vainglorious and ambitious Abbot Nannid, an old foe of Fidelma’s, is the chief proponent of this punishment.
Now, Fidelma not only has to prove Gormán’s innocence—made more difficult by the accused’s sudden escape—but also defend her country’s ancient system of law over the new and popular laws of Christianity.
Things are never simple for the erstwhile holy sister.
“A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi,” Fidelma observed quietly.
Seeing Conrí’s frown, Eadulf translated: “A precipice in front, wolves behind. Whatever decision Prince Donennach makes, he will be faced with war; an internal war among the Uí Fídgente or a war against Cashel. And we have only nine nights to avert it.”
The 27th Fidelma mystery proves, yet again, that nothing gets past our observant expert in the law. She’s the perfect blend of ancient knowledge and “modern” scholarship, a multilingual princess Poirot. In true Fidelma fashion, she winkles out more than one conspiracy, weaves verbal knots around her opponents, and manages the nigh impossible of mediating between traditional customs and Christian zealotry.
The plot is peopled with brigands, noble warriors, shady priests, and innocent victims. Fidelma’s husband and partner in detection, Eadulf, gets several moments to shine, and there are thrilling escapes and close calls in between murders, courtroom grandstanding, and faked suicides.
Eadulf pointed to the three knots tied at one end of the cord. “But that looks like…” he began slowly.
“A religieux cord belt.” Brehon Faolchair’s voice was grim.
“You are thinking of Brother Mac Raith from the Abbey of Imleach,” Fidelma said. “He wears such a rope.”
“It seems odd that if a murderer was going to attempt to disguise a murder to make it look like suicide, and go to all that trouble, why would that murderer leave behind such an obvious clue to their identity?” Eadulf mused.
“Unless it was just another attempt at disguising the real murderer,” Fidelma said.
Peter Tremayne clearly knows his stuff. His vast knowledge of Ancient Ireland’s laws, language, customs, and landscape are evident. The legal dialogue he writes for Fidelma is exhaustingly thorough, allowing the heroine to lead everyone through brilliant loop-de-loops of logic.
The fly in the ointment here is that this immense knowledge frequently slows the pace of the story, and while many of the redundancies are necessary to properly lead the audience through the mystery to Fidelma’s triumphant conclusion, it can grate at times.
Tremayne’s habit of peppering the dialogue with Celtic words and then having the character’s translate in-text can also be tiring. With the foreigner Eadulf at the heart of the story, such translations are justified; but after the fifteenth instance, the reader may find themselves longing for a simple glossary in the back instead of heavy-handed scholarship within the narrative.
The Fidelma series is one tailored to an audience that loves historical accuracy and legal wordplay. It’s meticulously crafted, with every casual conversation coming back in a bigger way, and thus rewards the careful reader.
But for those who want a bit more passion and emotion, this might not be the right fit. Fidelma’s world is one of intelligence over heart, words over empathy, and most of the characters are little more than wooden puppets who perform their allotted actions before being whisked off-stage.
There are plenty of layers and depth to the plot and mystery but very little beneath the surface of the characters. Part of this is due to Tremayne’s—and Fidelma’s—tendency to keep everything at arm’s length, never giving us a glimpse of the human feelings beneath the external shape.
Still, Penance of the Damned is a well-written and thoroughly twisty whodunit with several surprises and colorful moments. Not bad for the 27th installment in a series.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.