Author: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Simon Pulse
I love historical fiction, particularly that set in the Middle Ages. And that is why, Changeling, set in 1433, and opening in Castle Sant Angelo in Rome, appealed to me. But sadly, despite the promise, this one went all over the place and failed to hold my interest.
Luca Vero, a 17-year-old novice at a monastery, has been expelled and charged with heresy for insisting that the relic in the possession of the monastery, a nail from the true Cross, is a fake. Luca is afraid that he will be tortured to death by the Inquisition. Instead, the Inquisition tells him that he is assigned to seek knowledge.
These are exciting times. The Ottoman empire has taken over Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine empire, and the Pope believes that the end times, when Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, are coming.
Meanwhile, at the Castle of Lucretili, 17-year-old Isolde is told by her brother, Giorgio, that their dead father has disinherited her and that she must either become a nun or marry a lecherous old man, who he has chosen. Isolde chooses to enter the nunnery.
Luca sets out on his quest, accompanied by Frieze, the kitchen lad, and Brother Peter, a clerk ordered to keep a record of their work. He is assigned to investigate the strange and dangerous events taking place at the nunnery, where nuns are seeing visions, sleepwalking, and experiencing the stigmata.
The Dominican friars want to control the nunnery. It upsets the priests there to think of women making decisions for themselves. In addition, the nuns are panning for gold in a stream on the castle lands and Frieze and Luca are determined to find out who will gain. The sense of intrigue increases, just as the needle of suspicion points to the Lady Abbess and her Moorish childhood friend, Ishraq.
The third person narration hints at Isolde’s and Ishraq’s complicity in something, but that part is not resolved properly.
Once Luca and party solve this mystery, they, accompanied by Isolde and Ishraq, for as silly a reason as safety of travelling together, go off to another village, riding on stolen horses. There they encounter villagers who have captured a werewolf that has been terrorizing them. Frieze befriends the beast, even as the village prepares to kill it. The resolution of this mystery is utterly lame.
On paper, Luca starts out as character with potential. We are told that he is good with numbers, and is intelligent, capable of learning new languages and speaking them fluently. However, he does not demonstrate these skills through the course of the book. Incidentally, he is the Changeling of the book. He was found by his parents, and adopted in place of the child they lost.
For a character who speaks out against the deceit being practised in the church, his views are surprisingly traditional. He says, God gave men the rule over everything… At the creation of the world.
He believes that the reason for the trouble at the nunnery is that These women lived in a community as if men did not exist, as if God had not created men to be their masters.
As a character, Frieze was far better than Luca, Isolde and Ishraq. He is depicted as a goofball who flirts with Ishraq and the cook. A foolish boy who still makes you think. He says of the word, fool, Easy to say, hard to prove. He gets the cob to stop neighing after he whispers to it.
I noticed that Frieze had the best lines. It is he who notices that the Lady Almoner, though a nun, wears silk petticoats, that rustle when she walks. He says, More than one way to make inquiry. Don’t have to be able to write to be able to think. Sometimes it helps to just listen.
In another instance, he says, You can always tell a pretty girl by the way she walks. A pretty girl walks like she owns the world.
Though the banter between Luca and Frieze was amusing, I didn’t think that Luca and Frieze made a good team. I thought Frieze would have been better off on his own. Of course, Luca arrived at the conclusions, but that was because he had the authority. Actually, it was Frieze who drew Luca’s attention to the facts and helped him make those connections.
There were a couple of errors that made things worse. The Inquisitor tells Luca that the Zero was invented by Moors. As facts go, the zero was invented by the Babylonians, the Mayans and the Indians.
The author talks about the political issues at play, the egos of men in authority, but we don’t get to see much of this.
In using the itinerant style of adventure for the protagonists, the author runs the risk of losing her hold on the pace of each of the adventures. None hold our interest.
The author should have either written a story about the clash of truth and superstition, or written a paranormal story about werewolves. Attempting to fuse the two works badly. The book spends the first half, seemingly decrying superstition, and the second half, encouraging it. We actually see a little four-legged animal metamorphose into a little boy.
At the end of it, it seems as if an idea that was good enough for a short story has been stretched across a novel.