The Holy Thief, by Ellis Peters
The penultimate novel in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael Chronicles  covers some familiar ground, and some new ground as well. What begins with the tying up of a plot line involving the renegade earl of the fens that covered several novels, when he dies after being struck by an arrow outside of a siege of a castle designed to pen him in, then involves some of the characters from one of those novels, The Potters’ Field, involving another brother from that same monastery who does not appear well suited to the cloth, quickly becomes an extremely complicated novel dealing with love, death, murder, theft, and slavery, and not in that order of occurrence or importance. All of these serious elements occur in a novel that deals with the intersection of canon law and civil law.
The titular character of this novel (spoiler alert) is a young man with a curious name who sings like an angel but has a much more complicated nature, seeking to increase the glory of his abbey, which is being recovered from its desecration, by stealing the supposed tomb of Saint Winifred, a matter which several characters relate back to the first novel of the series. Meanwhile, the theft is discovered and a witness is uncovered who can point out the perpetrator. Meanwhile, said thief, who is still a novice Benedictine monk, hides out from trouble with a slave girl who has her eye set on him as the instrument of her freedom, even if he is not entirely aware of it, while a dying woman has given a prophecy with ominous importance: a troubadour only needs three things: an instrument, a horse, and a lady love, which explains why I have never been a successful troubadour, because I have always had too hard a time finding lady loves, unlike the young men of Cadfael novels.
Among the more intriguing elements of this novel is the fact that an argument over where Saint Winifred’s supposed coffin is to rest among three contenders is solved by a sortes Biblicae, where a finger upon a verse provides a divine oracle. In this particular case, the oracles given to five people are perfectly chosen, by obvious design, including rebuke, praise, and mystery for different parties. Additionally, the murder ends up being complicated by several factors, including the thieving young monk hiding with the slave girl in the hay where they only talk, with no hanky panky, a monk upset over the theft of the tomb who beats a man unconscious and thinks he kills him, and a cold-blooded murderer who is fingered a little too soon after he lies about looking for a saddle and tips off Cadfael. In a novel with travel, young love, a clear desire for freedom, drama with thieves of several different kinds, and with a satisfying and complex mystery, there is a lot to enjoy, even as the Cadfael series winds towards its conclusion.
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