This is the first book in a historical mystery series set in 7th century Ireland. In this book we get introduced to the main characters of the series – Sister Fidelma and Brother Eadulf.
Fidelma belongs to the abbey of Kildare in Ireland, an abbey which follows the traditions of the Celtic Church. She is also a dálaigh, an advocate of the law courts, qualified to the degree of Anruth, the second highest possible level. Historical notes added to the book explain the sophisticated law system (the Behon system) existing in Ireland at this time, and the position of women within that society. Women in this society enjoyed a freedom and status that was not repeated until the late 20th century. It is sad that this enlightened society did not survive. Many aspects of their legal system sound much more reasonable than the one we have today. Such a pity that ultimately the Roman church won the fight for the control of religion.
Eadulf is a Saxon from Seaxmund's Ham in East Anglia. He is a follower of the Roman Church, in the retinue of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Saxons are generally portrayed as barbaric in comparison to the Irish, with harsh punishments for slight infringements of the law. Most are also shown as illiterate and unhygienic. Eadulf however studied in Ireland for several years, is intelligent and presentable (or at least, bathes each day), and is an exception to Fidelma’s prejudices.
A large part of the book is about the conflict between the Celtic and the Roman teachings. Fidelma has travelled to Whitby to take part in a synod called by the Saxon king, to determine if his land should follow the Celtic or Roman teachings in the future. Just as the proceedings are about to commence, one of the main speakers for the Celtic faction at the debate is murdered, and Fidelma and Eadulf are thrown together to investigate the murder before war breaks out between the factions.
The book is a bit heavy-handed with the superiority of the Celtic system over the Roman system, and of the Irish over the Saxons, but is still an entertaining read and a good mystery in the cosy style. It is worth reading for the historical background contained in the book, in explaining the differences between the Celtic & Roman churches, and in the importance of the synod at Whitby to the development of Christianity in Britain.