Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Wolves of Savernake by Edward Marston

One great aspect of The Wolves of Savernake by Edward Marston is the stark differences in the main characters and how these opposites provide humor and wit to this mystery. This is the first novel in Marston’s Domesday Book series featuring Gervase Bret, the young lawyer, and the former knight Ralph Delchard.

The Domesday Book is a record of the survey conducted of much of England and Wales by order of William I (William the Conqueror). In Wolves, Gervase and Ralph are summoned to the forest village of Bedwyn by a miller who is viciously attacked and killed on the eve of their arrival. They find the town in a near-panic that a wolf is on the loose in the Savernake forest. The presence of the king’s men does nothing to help. The townspeople are distrusting of the men who may levy more taxes on them, even though they’re already stretched beyond their meager means.

The cool-headed Gervase and the fiery-tempered Ralph combine their diverse talents to delve through documents and charters to uncover the claim on some land the miller made prior to his death. It was this claim that brought Gervase and Ralph to Bedwyn. Another powerful man in the town and the local abbey also present claims to the parcel of land. Ownership of the land means income for the owner from rent of those living there.

While Gervase tries to determine which, if any, of the charters are genuine, Ralph pursues the beautiful wife of the town’s reeve, who is out of town on business. Someone is distributing counterfeit coins. Gervase strikes up a friendship with a young noviate in the abbey and a second man is killed by the same phantom wolf.

The novel is an interesting look at the mindset of England not long after the Conquest of 1066. It was a time of upheaval after William I came to power and the populace still had many harsh feelings toward the monarch. Sometimes it gets difficult to keep track of who’s Norman, Saxon or neither and who was wronged by whom. That hostility and disrespect extended to the king’s men.

The Wolves of Savernake also made me wonder and marvel at the record-keeping practices of a time over 900 years ago, before the invention of the Gutenburg press when copies were made by hand, usually in abbeys and monasteries. From reading Marston’s book, record keeping was not easy but there was an effective process in place at least during William I’s reign in the later years of the eleventh century.

The novel has some very interesting developments and surprises as Gervase and Ralph uncover the truth behind the attacks, the forgery, the counterfeiting and finally who actually owns the land under dispute. That’s what whets the reader’s appetite for more of the Domesday series.

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