Naughty Nuns of the 14th Century

The Dragon of Handale: A Mystery, by Cassandra Clark, (Minotaur Books), 352 pages, release date 17 March, 2015

While I’ll admit to being somewhat ambivalent about The Dragon of Handale, I’m also willing to admit that it’s a fun read. Hildegard, a former nun recently returned from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, is visiting the isolated Handale Priory, hoping to decide whether to return to the religious life or to begin a secular existence. This novel is one in a series, so I had to do a bit of careful reading for back-story, but the back-story is there—and Cassandra Clark doesn’t bludgeon the reader with it the way a less apt writer might.

Hildegard finds little opportunity for reflection as she tackles a number of related mysteries: the murder of a stone mason working on a project at the priory; the death (or murder?) of a priest; the disappearances of novices; a tower likely full of smuggles goods; masochistic penitents; sadistic nuns; pending civil war in England; and the existence of dragon that may or may not be responsible for the deaths.

The novel doesn’t paint a particularly rich picture of the political situation in England at that time, but readers can enjoy following Hildegard as she puzzles things out. In several spots, the author uses an excluding-the-reader device—letting readers know that Hildegard has made discoveries, but not revealing what those discoveries are. This occasionally leaves the readers feeling oddly separated from the protagonist, but as I said above, The Dragon of Handale is a fun read.