The Illuminator
Brenda Rickman Vantrease
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The Illuminator
Brenda Rickman Vantrease
St. Martin's Griffin
432 pages
December 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This historical novel takes place in the tumultuous fourteenth century, when the Church's stranglehold on England is draconian and true believers are held within the grasp of a greedy bishop who squeezes every serf and villein for their last coin to purchase the favors of God and the salvation of their souls.

Split between the factions of the Great Schism, citizens hope only to escape notice of Church and nobility, to fulfill their duties without risking the wrath of those in power. Meanwhile, the heretical Sir John Wycliff surreptitiously copies the Bible into the language of the common man, challenging the nobility's right to control all learning; the bishop’s guards scour the countryside for Wycliff's followers.

A widowed woman alone, Lady Katherine of Blackingham Manor rigorously monitors the fortunes of her twin sons, particularly Alfred, who is due to inherit in his father’s name. Just when a usurious priest is breathing down her neck, Katherine is sent a respite through the offices of the monks at Broomholm Abbey - an artist, an illuminator who will reside at her manor with his daughter while he completes his work, his board paid by the abbey.

The times are increasingly dangerous given the political climate; there is unrest among the peasants, unfair taxation burdening their already meager incomes. Exposing the deficiencies of the feudal system, the author illustrates the travails of a population in support of nobility, a class system that favors only the titled. The law and the Church are harsh rulers of a people who have no hopes of ever bettering their circumstances.

The author examines the lives of her characters with as much artistry as Finn illuminates his texts. Perfection lies in the small but poignant connections between characters, the sweet bloom of first love, the surprise of romance found in the later years, and a mother's affection for sons grown too old to comfort in her embrace, all of them ill-prepared for the world's cruel demands. When life intrudes with a vengeance born of the times, foolish dreams are cast aside, giving way to the harsh strictures of convention.

The characters might have come from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm: half-Tom, the dwarf who lives alone in the fens; Sheriff Guy, with an eye on Lady Katherine and her inheritance; Simpson, the ill-willed, thieving overseer; Bishop Henry Dispenser, "the warring bishop," who puts down the bloody Peasant's Revolt of 1381; John Wycliff, one of the first religious men to herald the Reformation; and Julian of Norwich, a holy woman who spends her life in prayer and meditation.

The ending is action-packed, a dramatic end to the chaos preceding it, the peasant uprising versus the armies of the Crown, death and destruction awash in the land as surely as if the gates of Hell had opened up, bodies strewn over the countryside in the wake of random violence, fields and manors burnt to the ground. Yet honor prevails, the fruits of love protected by good intentions, tied together in bonds of blood.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2005

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