Content Warning: Discussion of Sexual Violence at the End
Usually, I analyze historical texts on this blog. However, I want to do something a bit different. Today I want to discuss a book series that I’ve been enjoying.
Last year I really got sucked into mystery novels. There are a lot of subgenres in this particular genre. My personal favorites are historical ones where the detectives are clergy. I know that is a very specific niche, but you would be surprised just how many series there are out there with that premise! One such example is the Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters. But I don’t want to discuss those today. Instead, I want to talk about the Prioress Eleanor books written by Priscilla Royal. (As you’ve probably guessed from the title!)
The series takes place in late thirteenth-century England a few years after the Second Baron’s War. (The first book is set in 1270.) The story begins when twenty-year-old Eleanor of Wynethorpe is sent to Tyndal Priory to be their new prioress. It should be noted that Tyndal Priory is part of the real-life Order of Fontevraud, an order exclusively run by women. It should also be noted that the only reason Eleanor is prioress is thanks to King Henry III. The king elected her (with the Abbess in France’s approval) as a political move to thank Eleanor’s father for his loyalty during the war.
Due to this, as well as her inexperience and the fact Eleanor actually plans to rule the priory (instead of just letting the prior do it like the last prioress did), she faces quite a bit of hostility from the community of nuns and monks. However, Eleanor is a clever, witty woman who learns quickly. As the series goes on, she manages to gain not only the experience she lacks but the respect of others around her.
Then there’s Brother Thomas. He’s definitely a much more interesting and intriguing character. Unlike Eleanor, Thomas never wanted to be a monk. Instead, he was forced into the priesthood. How does one get forced into the priesthood? Well, that was actually a common occurrence in medieval society. But unlike other characters who were forced by their parents or joined because their spouse joined (as well as other reasons), Thomas did it to save his life. Before the start of the first book, he was caught in bed with his beloved childhood friend (another man) and imprisoned. Before he could be burned at the stake, a mysterious priest rescued him and gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse: become a monk and work as his master’s spy or burn.
Needless to say, Brother Thomas took the offer.
Several of the series’ overarching plot threads is Thomas’s trauma, PTSD, and his own personal conflicts with his faith. As I write this, I’m only on book nine out of the fifteen. By this book, Thomas has processed much of his trauma but in earlier ones, it is the main thing he is dealing with.
One thing I do like about these mysteries is that not every book takes place at Tyndal. While that can be annoying if you enjoy the characters who live near the priory (such as Crowner Ralf, Signy, and Gytha) I find it more realistic concerning the murders. If everyone kept getting murdered around Tyndal it eventually gets a little ridiculous. (It asks the question, why is everyone being murdered at this tiny priory in the middle of nowhere?) Granted, you could also ask why people keep getting killed around Eleanor and Thomas, but in some books, they arrive at the location after the crimes occurred.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can suspend my disbelief if they stumble across a murder but not if they keep happening where they live. After all, they are supposed to be clergy, not professional/amateur detectives who go out looking for this type of thing.
Another thing I enjoy is how much Royal captures the culture of the time period. Often times in historical literature you will have characters who very much have modern-day views. For me personally, I’m not a fan of this. If I’m reading a book that takes place in the Roman empire or wherever, I want them to have the cultural views of that time period. For example, if a story takes place in Ancient Athens, a female character isn’t going to be frolicking around freely without consequences. Royal does a very good job of portraying medieval views. You can tell she has done a lot of research for each story. (And as a bonus Royal includes a historical note and a bibliography in the back of each book so you can do further research as well!)
While I do love Prioress Eleanor, there is one aspect I find a bit off-putting: the amount of sexual violence throughout the series. It’s important for authors to be careful when writing these topics. Royal usually handles her portrayal of rape and assault well, especially in regard to the effect it has on characters, of all genders. So many stories treat men being raped as some sort of joke when in reality it’s not funny at all. In fact, it’s extremely far from funny. Instead of it being a punchline, we see just how serious it is and just how much it has traumatized the characters (especially Thomas). However, sometimes the sexual violence feels gratuitous and irrelevant to the plot. Other times it is very relevant. Sexual violence is a horrible reality of the world we live in but the sheer amount of it in these texts becomes too much. I enjoy the Prioress Eleanor series (and will keep reading it) but I do wish Royal would find other ways to move the plot.
Despite this, Prioress Eleanor is an excellent series overall. I recommend anyone who enjoys medieval mysteries give it a read.
Books in Order:
- Wine of Violence
- Tyrant of the Mind
- Sorrow Without End
- Justice for the Damned
- Forsaken Soul
- Chambers of Death
- Valley of Dry Bones
- A Killing Season
- The Sanctity of Hate
- Covenant with Hell
- Satan’s Lullaby
- Land of Shadows
- The Proud Sinner
- Wild Justice
- The Twice Hanged Man
If you want to learn more, you can find Priscilla Royal’s website here.