If you are looking to latch on to a series of books that are unfailingly exciting from book to book, look no further. Of course, you must like historical fiction which are a detective series to boot. For us, Sherlock Holmes is also a historical series, but Brother Cadfael walked in England much much earlier.
It was the twelfth century in England. Civil War tore apart the people. King Stephan and Queen Maud strive to claw at power. The aristocracy is divided into two camps. The people, largely unattached to either, hope for peace and prosperity and will sing the praises of any who brings it to them. King Stephan is in the lead for now. Shrewsbury in England is behind the King.
In a Benedictine abbey in Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael is living out his retirement. He was inducted late into the order, after he had served in the Crusade and worked as a Sailor. He has uncommon knowledge of herbs. He is tasked with maintaining the herb garden at the abbey and also tend to sick people. He is shrewd and observant. Time and again he is called upon to solve a mystery.
There is a formula is often followed in all the books. There is a murder and also a love story in the secular world. Brother Cadfael gets interested in the murder or is called to help. His knowledge of people and their passions is as extensive as his knowledge of herbs. He makes use of it to solve these mysteries and set the lovers on the right path. Often there is monk in trouble over his faith. Brother Cadfael helps him too.
Despite the formula, the sheer inventiveness behind each book makes them virtually unputdownable. I have polished off a complete book at a sitting, a feat I have not achieved much in recent times. Luckily for me, scribd.com has the complete series on its shelves. I am having a whale of time reading them up. I have completed about six or seven of the total twenty so far. The way I am going, I am sure I will finish all of them by the end of this year.
The era is faithfully depicted and rings true. I am not knowledgeable enough to vouch for it, but everything sounds right. The language, the clothes, the customs. By and large, the monks and men of God are depicted in a good light. They do have failings, one or two are evil but generally are wise and pious. Same goes for the aristocracy. They are also mostly favorably depicted, with some exceptions. The common people are usually hard working and solid, again, with some exceptions. In short, the times are hard, the war between Stephan and Maud is difficult for the people, but still they are doing well. This may not be the truth, but it makes a good setting for the mysteries when an occasional serpent comes along to cause trouble in paradise.
Brother Cadfael is Welsh and there is a lot of reference to the different way of life of Welsh people. Sometimes people from Cadfael's past turn up, with a bit of back story and we learn a little more about the short stout monk bent upon doing the right thing. The core story progresses from book to book, some characters remain constant and some change. At times the monk leaves Shrewsbury on a mission and discovers adventures in a new place. Hugh Beringer, the deputy sheriff at Shrewsbury is the monk's best friend and ally. They often aid each other in solving mysteries.
I have enjoyed all the books in the series I have read so far immensely, but the last one I read - Virgin in the Ice was by far the best. There was the mandatory murder, a young love pair and a confused monk, but there was also intrigue, runaways, capture and a battle replete with daring rescues. This was the only book where I could not figure out the murderer.
I suppose I will write a bit more about the series after I complete them or after I have read some more books. I hope I have kindled an interest in book lovers about this very interesting series.