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A Mortal Bane    by Roberta Gellis order for
Mortal Bane
by Roberta Gellis
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2001 (1999)
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

AMortal Bane marks a move by historical romance and fantasy writer Roberta Gellis into the mystery field. The time is 1139, during a turbulent and cruel period in which the grandchildren of William the Conqueror, King Stephen and Queen Maude, both vye for control of England. Everyone must choose sides and woe to those on the wrong one. The author has created a truly unique setting and characters - instead of the sleuth being a monk or nun, or one associated with the royal court, this one runs a high class brothel. This is exactly the same period as in Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries, but what a difference between the stories!

The brothel is the Old Priory Guesthouse, which the Madam (Magdalene la Batarde, a high born woman fallen on hard times) rents from the Bishop of Winchester. The women are widely regarded as whores who, although performing a necessary function, are considered sinners beyond redemption. As Madam, Magdalene has become an independent woman, who while not accepted or respected, is still very unusual for a time when women had essentially no power. She employs a wonderful trio of young women - one blind, one mute and the other simple-minded. In these four, Gellis has created well-drawn, memorable characters whom the reader will not soon forget.

The word bane derives from old English and means harm, ruin or death. Ruin threatens Magdalene when a papal messenger is found murdered on the church steps next to the guesthouse. She must investigate to protect the brothel's reputation. Magdalene is assisted by Sir Bellamy of Itchen, one of the knights in service to the Bishop of Winchester. Gellis' background as a romance writer shows as she includes many freighted and longing glances between the beautiful Magdalene and handsome Sir Bellamy. Together they form an appealing team and I hope they will continue together in future books.

The setting in 12th century London is fascinating. It would be helpful for the reader to have a reasonable knowledge of the people and politics of the time, but the book is still quite enjoyable without a full understanding of the alliances. Although the plot is a bit convoluted and requires an attentive reader, A Mortal Bane is a rewarding tale with a very special heroine.

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