Review: “Pilgrim of Death” by Felicity Pulman



Book Title: “Pilgrim of Death”
Author: Felicity Pulman
Series: The Janna Mysteries/The Janna Chronicles #4
Pages: 282

Copy Origin: NetGalley

Blurb: Janna has joined a band of pilgrims en route to Oxeneford. Along their journey she finds a dead man carrying a letter bearing the seal of Henry, Bishop of Winchester, now a supporter of the Empress Matilda. Bernard, the leader of the pilgrims, swears Janna to secrecy, and undertakes to deliver the letter to the empress in Oxeneford, where the empress is making preparations to claim the crown.
Will Janna find the answers she seeks in Ambresberie? Dashing newcomer Ralph has promised to help Janna with her quest to find her father – but can he be trusted? And with the empress routed by the queen and her mercenary army, and evidence of Bishop Henry’s treachery in Janna’s own hand, what does the future hold for the empress and her supporters – and for Janna?

The book has been previously published as Willows for Weeping

Ellis Peters Cadfael novels were among the first crime-novels I read. They left me with a fascination for the time-period they are set in (the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda). This is a fascination few writers of historical fiction seem to share; only a handful of novels set in it (let’s not talk about The Pillars of the Earth. Ever). They also left me with a high standard for historical novels in general. Peters was incredibly good at weaving in the neccessary background-information in the narration without making it seem like an infodump. Too often in historical fiction I get the feeling that the author really wanted to share how much they know about certain things; they slip in pages of lectures that stop the flow of the story and don’t care if it is necessary for the reader to know all this to understand the story.
Pulman mentions Peters in her acknowledgements and points out that Janna is an herbalist as an homage to Brother Cadfael. My expectations were accordingly high.
So did the book deliver?
Well…it didn’t fail completely.

The Good
Pulman doesn’t just use the war as window-dressing. The plot could only have happened like this during the time of the Anarchy, when people changed their loyalties again and again. Still there is never a full-blown history lecture. She tells enough that even if somebody isn’t familiar with the details of the period knows what is going on.

The mediocre
The mystery-plot. Unless you have never consumed crime-fiction in any form you will be able to guess the bad guy a while before Janna does. But even with all my love for Ellis Peters I have to admit that this was also an issue in her books so I won’t complain to much about it.

The bad
I just couldn’t always follow Janna’s reasoning. At one point a valuable relic, the hand of St. John, disappears. Earlier Janna saw a dog playing with some bones that she thinks could have been from a human hand. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that the dog must have taken the relic on his own account. It’s true that it’s unlikely that it’s a completely unrelated hand that just happened to lie around near the relic. Still she never considers that relics are be guarded and/or inside a shrine so that a dog couldn’t have just have taken it without help from a human.
That’s not the only time Janna acts illogical. Whom she trusts or not depends on what the plot demands rather than reason. One man can be trusted with a vital secret that could aid the Empress because he yells loudly enough that he supports Matilda; another because he tells her about his tragic past which just can’t have been a lie. She’s also not the only one to change her opinion in the blink of an eye without reason. One of her fellow travellers goes from disliking Janna to sending someone after her to look out for her. In these cases the book would have profited from being longer and spending more time on explaining these change of hearts.
Additionally the book has strange mystical elements like premonitions and visions when everything else is firmly rooted in reality. It seems completely out of place.

In the end it boils down to ‘I can see the potential’. Pulman writes well, but the ability to write about history without lecturing and to plot an at least solid mystery don’t help if I can’t connect with the characters. My temptation to check out another book from the series if it does better is rather low.


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