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A PLAY OF KNAVES
by Margaret Frazer
Berkley, August 2006
288 pages
$6.99
ISBN: 0425211118


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lord Lovell's Players, having spent Easter Week of 1485 providing their lord's manor with edifying theatrical performances on holy themes, plus a farce on the day after, are well pleased and well paid and on the road in the everlasting search for new audiences.

Instead of taking their usual route, however, Lady Lovell has asked them to head south, to the White Horse Vale. There, she hopes, they can be her eyes and ears for a few days and help unravel a mystery of "angers among her best folk there."

The players arrive in the hamlet of Ashewell and in due time are invited to perform in two local gentlemen's halls, as well as in the village square, with the grudging compliance of the local priest, since the performance will be a church fundraiser. With all this activity, they soon become aware of currents of ill-feeling and shadowy secrets among the gentry of the village.

While one family is amiable enough, the other is prickly and quarrelsome. It is not difficult to see that trouble is brewing, but the reasons are harder to determine. The players glean what information they can and prepare to move on, but the sudden violent death of one of the gentry leaves them stuck where they are, as outsiders objects of some suspicion and therefore powerfully interested in discovering who murdered the man and why.

Margaret Frazer always tells a good tale. Her characters are rich, round and intriguing, and she masterfully manages the art of bringing history to life. I was quite fascinated by the glimpse of the social fluidity of 15th century rural England; the local gentry consist of an ex-butcher who married money and the son of a thatcher who made his fortune in foreign wars, by the ransom of a French lordling. A local farmer is so prosperous that there is talk the abbess to whom he owes his villein's service will insist he buy his own freedom so that she can collect rent from him!

Because these facts are all part of the story and essential to the characters, rather than any sort of lesson on medieval economics, one never gets that dry-as-dust feeling of being lectured. Insights into the life of medieval players and observations about rural customs are similarly enjoyable, never mere lumps of lore over which the story stumbles.

The individual members of Lord Lovell's Players, especially Joliffe, who is mostly our point of view, continue to grow and deepen, in this third installment, and the relationships between them progress on their rocky way. These are people one can recognize as friends, with the assortment of irritating and comfortable traits that friends come with, and inspiring a similar desire to stick with them. I eagerly look forward to the next Joliffe book.

Reviewed by Diana Sandberg, September 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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