Monday, October 1, 2012

In Which I Review "Blood Lance" - A Medieval Noir

I promised something different on the blog, and here it is, just for you, Pocketeers!  (All five of you...)  This Summer I entered a drawing to be one of a few, a happy few, lucky bloggers who would receive an advance copy of Blood Lance, the fifth and newest Crispin Guest medieval noir novel by the fantastic Jeri Westerson.  And I got it!  An e-galley of the book I've been waiting for all year!  I read it right away, and had every intention of reviewing it just as soon, but, as stated in my previous post, life had different ideas.  So now, two weeks before the book is released, I am finally posting my review of my new favorite book, Blood Lance, due for release on October 16, 2012.  And since this is an art blog, I will intersperse photos of stuff I've made recently that has been medieval-inspired.

Like this :)

Some background first.  The Crispin Guest novels are a series of historical mysteries, but not your usual cozy stuff.  These are set in the 14th Century but written in the noir style, so think "gritty."  Crispin Guest is the sleuth, and he used to be a knight.  Unfortunately he plotted against the young King Richard II, hoping to replace the child with his mentor and father figure the Duke of Lancaster, and was found out.  Lancaster persuaded the young king to spare Crispin's life, but Crispin was stripped of his title, his lands, his fortune, everything, and cast out on the street.  Finding himself suddenly poor, he eventually began making a living by solving mysteries for people.  Along the way he has impressed sheriffs, made some important connections, and gained a loyal pickpocket-turned-servant/apprentice named Jack Tucker (more on him later).

In each novel, the mystery involves a holy relic - anything from the Crown of Thorns to the remains of martyr St. Thomas a Becket.  Now we have the Spear of Longinus (which pierced the side of Christ on the cross) that has apparently gone missing, and several men would do quite a lot to get their hands on it.  Each of these relics and sacred objects bears divine power, but Crispin is a skeptic.  He never really believes that what's happening has anything to do with the power of God working through the relic.  But we, fellow readers, know better (and so does Jack, who freaks out pretty much every time).

Blood Lance opens with Crispin trudging home on a chilly night, miserable with a head cold, and then having the misfortune of seeing a man plummet from a house on London Bridge into the Thames.  Because he always does the right (and foolish) thing, Crispin dives in to save the man, but it is too late - he was dead before he left the window.  Naturally, Crispin must investigate.  That's when the real fun starts...

The dead man was an armorer, with some interesting neighbors and clients.  There's the tailor next door, with a beautiful daughter who says she was betrothed to the victim but doesn't seem too broken up about his death.  She was a fun - and sometimes aggravating - character.  There is the knight who was once Crispin's friend and comrade, but now is desperate to find what the armorer had promised him - the tip of the Spear of Longinus, rumored to make the bearer invincible in battle.  This knight was definitely a favorite character for me, because he was unpredictable.  And then we have several other knights trying to find the Spear, knights who are really thugs.  Sort of like my college history professor described knights to us.  They're the kind of knights who inspired writers to come up with the concept of chivalry... not because they were chivalrous but because the writers wanted them to learn from their literary example.  Also in the mix, we have some real historical figures, like Abbot Nicholas of Westminster Abbey and my personal favorite, Geoffrey Chaucer.  I love the way these historical figures are written.  Because honestly, it's easy to forget that they were people with lives beyond what's written about them in history books, and why not give them personalities?  Chaucer in particular is one who keeps you guessing.  Never quite sure what he's up to, and whether to trust him. 

The regular characters are, of course, a delight.  I love Crispin because he's so human.  Normally I like my heroes to be heroic and nearly impossibly perfect, but while Crispin is pretty heroic - remember what I said about always doing the right thing? - he's also very flawed and very relatable.  Crispin is clearly a bit of a rogue.  He loves a good wine, a good fight, and a good wench (in no particular order).  He is so bitter about his past, about how far he has fallen, about everything he doesn't have.  It drives him to drink, and it causes him to keep people at arm's length.  Well, to try to keep people at arm's length.  He has a few very stubborn and very loving friends.  Gilbert and Eleanor, the owners of the Boar's Tusk Tavern, are loyal and they're a great foil for Crispin when he needs to talk through what's going on.  And of course, there's my favorite, Jack Tucker.  Jack is a young teenager, not quite thirteen when we meet him in the first book, but now that it's been a few years since he attached himself to Crispin, he's getting older, more confident, and more... teenaged.  The relationship that he and Crispin have is deepening into something more familial than hierarchical, though Crispin is quick to put Jack in his place when he gets too big for his britches (which is often).  Some of my favorite scenes are the ones at home with Crispin and Jack.

I have enjoyed all of the stories in the series, but I particularly enjoyed this one.  I think the books are getting better as they go along.  I don't want to say too much about the plot beyond what I said above, because I don't want to give anything away, but this story was twisty.  She throws a lot at you in this one, and it keeps you guessing all the way through.  At the same time, there are things that are, shall we say, familiar.  It wouldn't be a Crispin Guest book without:  Jack getting mouthy; Crispin getting out of sorts while drinking a bowl (or jug) of wine at the Boar's Tusk; sexy times with a comely maiden (sometimes not such a maiden); and of course, a fight that starts (or is accelerated) because Crispin just can't help but be a smartass.  But hey, all of that sounds like fun to me, so I never mind.  The only thing that didn't quite fit for me in this one was Crispin suddenly brooding over a lost love who I don't recall hearing much about since the first book.  But maybe I just forgot.

The writing, in my opinion, is very enjoyable.  It's easy to read but not dumbed down to be so.  Jeri Westerson is very descriptive, and her scenes always make me feel like I'm really slogging through medieval London with Crispin and Jack.  She uses medieval terms for things pretty seamlessly, and if you get lost, there's a glossary at the back of the book.  As far as total historical accuracy... it's been too long since I studied any history and I'm too lazy to fact-check her, but Jeri sure is convincing.  She does include notes on the history at the back of the book, too, which are always fascinating.  I read for entertainment, so if I'm also getting a little bit of real history, that's pretty awesome. 

Overall, this post has been a very long and wordy way of saying this:  Please check out the Crispin books, especially Blood Lance.  You can read Blood Lance without having read the first 4 books, but I hope you will go back and start at the beginning with Veil of Lies as well.  Check your local library, ask your favorite book store to stock it, or just do what most people will probably do anyway and order it from Amazon.  When you're done, lend it to a friend.  Keep the Crispin love flowing, so Jeri can keep the books coming. 

The art in this post features stamps by Michelle Ward, Tim Holtz, and Stampendous!, stencils by Michelle Ward, and stencils/masks hand-cut by me, PocketSize.


Maryanne said...

I really need to read these books. Your review is great, and so is the art work! Love what you've been doing!

Jeri Westerson said...

Maryanne, you really do! :)

Jeri Westerson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
~runningwave~ said...

Thank you for the thoughtful review, Ms. Pokkit. I now see why you recommended this series to me. Indeed it is a wonder a historical novel reader like myself has not yet had the pleasure, but I have been reading more 18th & 19th Century setting in my novels these days.

I love a good adventure-mystery plot, especially when the main character is a bit of an outcast. You have guessed my tastes well when you've spoken to me about this series.

Another one to add atop the To Read pile!

Diana Taylor said...

Great review , sounds like a book I'd enjoy - definitely one to add to my wish list - quite handy with Christmas coming up!
I love your art scattered in between the review - the tags are strikingly bold and beautiful.