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Twelve Cadfael Novels!

January 5, 2015

Happy 12th and final day of blogging! For this last post, I thought I would expound The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters, which I mentioned a couple posts ago.

Beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones, this is a series of medieval murder mysteries. They follow a typical cozy mystery structure, beginning with a crime and several suspects that get weeded out as the story moves on and the detective investigates. There’s also almost always a wedding at the end, the story wrapped up with a bow and church bells.

But before you all scoff at the idea of formulas fiction and go back to writing your esoteric, dimension-hopping novel on xenosexuality, I remind you that the reason a particular plot structure becomes a formula is because it works. Devastatingly so. To the point where I raced through 12 of this 20 book series, where my mother would steal into my room and root through my things trying to find the next book, where we both become frustrated when a book didn’t follow specs. *shudders* Do not get between my mother and a Cadfael novel. You will lose.

Because uuuugghhhhh, this series is brilliant. Our detective is Brother Cadfael, a Welsh monk cloistered in the Benedictine monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. His “Waston” is the local town Sheriff of Shrewsbury, Hugh Beringer. Together, this loyal, compassionate team keep crime down and chaos to a minimum, which is pretty impressive considering the stories take place during a historical period literally called “The Anarchy.”

There’s of course a host of other characters, both recurring and not, and all are well-drawn. Peters seems to imbue each character with something very human. Cadfael even seeks out each person’s humanity and uses it in his investigations, but he is always gentle, always honest, and (almost) always willing to forgive. His tender spot for teenagers is heartwarming, and I really would recommend the series to any teens out there. Cadfael is the epitome of the understanding adult teens need in their lives.

Don’t get me wrong though: Hugh and Cadfael are not push overs. There’s battles, sieges, stake-outs, and hostages like in any good adventure. And there’s nothing like the threat of a short drop and sudden stop to get suspects talking, or Vikings that one time I spent the whole book being terrified.

Each novel seemed to explore a different facet of medieval life: vellum-making, monastic politics, noble intrigue, pilgrimages, street fairs, and heretics, just to name a few. The variety and accuracy fascinated and intrigued me, and my mother and I definitely have more of a “feel” of medieval life than before. Peters has an eloquent and strong medieval voice throughout, easing the reader into the past until it’s effortless.

On the social justice front, Peters made a point to not have stock female characters, to give them just as much reason, desire, and conflict as the men. But even more rare, she purposely and repeatedly writes people of color. I nearly shrieked. Not as slaves or solely side characters either. Cadfael’s own son, a knight, is brown and members of the nobility share his complexion. Other characters are more ambiguous in skin tone, so you’re free to imagine them as whatever you like. As for the LGBTQIA scene, you’ll have to wear subtext goggles to find it, but it’s there. You gotta enjoy how much knights throw the word “love” around when talking to their lords or the brothers-that-are-not-actually-brothers-and-are-never-seen-apart pilgrims. Though toeing line between monastic celibacy and asexuality can be tricky, there are some in-text, totally canon instances of monks confessing that they’ve never felt that particular kind of desire. YES.

My misgivings with the series are few and far between, but I do have them. First, this isn’t a series that will yank you in. You’ve got to be patient. You’ll wake up one day and be hooked, but it’s not immediate. There are a lot of times where Peters stops the narrative to describe nature or a character’s appearance, which is a huge no-no in today’s writing market. Sometimes I became impatient, waiting for characters to communicate or have realizations I had 20 pages ago, but that happened only a few times and wasn’t as frustrating as other novels I’ve read.

So, overall, I feel very fond of and charmed by the series. I can easily see why so many historical fiction lovers love it, why it’s still being published, why Derek Jacobi agreed to star in the TV series. I’m glad there’s more yet to read.

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3 Comments
  1. Heehee, excellent! Once I have a moment, and maybe can see over my stack of to-read books, I’ll get on these. 😀

  2. I loved your comments. I have read all her work. Did you know she writes historical fiction under her real name, Edith Pargeter? I appreciated your comment about Cadfael’s teenage helpers and friends, as I really hadn’t noticed how he is there for one after another who is struggling to find his way. Shame on me. You did notice her more leisurely pace, compared to many of today’s novels. Unsurprising as she would be 102 if she were still alive: she died in 1995.

    • Oh, thank you! I definitely enjoyed Cadfael, so I’ll have to check out her other work. I was really sad when I learned she’d already passed! I looked her up before I started reading and was watching the Cadfael series. Devastated.

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