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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Apothecary Rose. Candance Robb. Arrow Books (1993)

A very engaging and enjoyable medieval murder mystery with a great cast and a cleverly used historical context. Owen Archer lost an eye and position as Captain of Archers at the same time and became a spy for his master the Duke of Lancaster instead.  In 1363, after the death of the Duke he  find new employment with John Thoresby, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York. Two suspicious deaths in York need to be investigated, one of them was a man closely connected to Thoresby and he needs Owen to establish if there is an threat to Thoresby or not. For cover Own will become an apprentice to a notable apothecary in York, who had provided herbal remedies connected to both deaths. Own arrives in York and starts his investigations and his apprenticeship and discovers that there is a nicely tangled web of  old secrets that remain very dangerous. The plot unravels at a calm pace, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is very satisfying.
The great pleasure of this book are the noisy and vivid cast that Candance Robb creates, that bustle and jostle with each other in a natural way, Own Archer, a man who works hard to be honorable, stands at the centre of the story,. His actions push the plot forward and create the pressure that drives the sharp conclusion. He does not dominate the story, the rest of the cast are full of life and make happy claims on the reader's attention, in particular Laurie, the wife of the apothecary, who has taken over running the business. She is vivid and strong, she responds to the way her life is turned inside out with strong appealing courage, rage and confusion.
The central romance that emerges between Own and Lucie never feels like a plot device, the mutual attraction is developed with a light touch that feels both adult and forceful, never contrived. The smaller players are given clear individual voices and strong presence in the book, they make the story considerably more engaging as they act to sometimes hide and sometimes reveal the plot. The reasons they respond the way they do rings true for the character and it is the mix of plausible motives that gives the mystery its focus and force. Candance Robb does develop a great villain, the horrifyingly understandable forces that drive him make him ever more dangerous.
The historical context is draped lightly over the story, where it is is needed to explain the motives of a cast member, it is clearly and unobtrusively explained, for the most part is is simply included as minor and effective details that firmly place the cast into their context. This allows the cast and story to emerge strongly and to drawn on the context without it ever being mere painted scenery nor overwhelming. A very enjoyable story.

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