EM Powell's Blood of the Fifth Knight is an example of what historical fiction should be: a well-written well-paced story in a historical setting that tells the story and not the setting. The novel (set in 1176) opens with King Henry II on a pilgrimage in Canterbury to do penance for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett. This is the second book of a series of at least three novels about the fifth knight (at the Beckett murder). That murder was the subject of the first book and this second book takes as its inspiration another aspect of Henry II's life: that his mistress Rosamund Clifford is buried in Godstow Convent, just outside Oxford. I have not read the first in the series The Fifth Knight and besides a little confusion about characters at the beginning that is not a problem as this is a series with the same characters rather than three parts of the same story. The third novel is due out in 2016, but at the point of this review had yet to be published.
The Fifth Knight is Benedict Palmer, who is called by the king out of a life in hiding to investigate who made an attempt on Clifford's life at the Royal Palace at Woodstock, near Oxford. The investigation the king planned never takes place and instead their are further attempts on Clifford's life. Although this is marketed as a mystery it is in fact a thriller. The action is well-paced and moves the story along steadily with many twists and turns in the plot to keep the reader interested. One complaint would be the characterisation of Clifford which, together with her dialogue, comes across as an attempt to appeal to a more modern reader and appears out of place in the wider context of the novel. At times the action scenes are a little unrealistic and in order to put him through a variety of twists and turns Palmer appears to have amazing powers of self-healing in what is a non-fantasy book.
Overall a very enjoyable read that draws the reader into the story, without feeling the need to explain the history.
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