Sunnyskywalker (sunnyskywalker) wrote,

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Refusing-to-feel-guilty pleasures: the Sister Fidelma series

There is a lot to like about Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma series, but also plenty that is... well, bad. Every time I read one, I am annoyed and wonder if I should just quit reading. Yet I have read about thirty of the damned things, and am almost certainly going to read that new one my library just got an ebook copy of.

And you know, I'm going to try to stop feeling guilty about "wasting" my time like that. Okay, so parts of the books really, really irritate me. But obviously not enough to stop me from liking the good parts, so maybe I can just let myself be at peace with feeling conflicted and read on.

Anyway, in case anyone's curious, this is a historical mystery series set in 7th-century Ireland. Fidelma was born into the royal family of the kingdom of Muman, studied Irish law and qualified to practice (which women were legally allowed to do in Ireland at the time, turns out), and joined a religious house basically because it was a good career move. She teams up with Brother Eadulf the Angle (to his eternal annoyance, everyone keeps calling him a Saxon) at the Synod of Whitby, and they fight crime!

I will skip all of the possible complaints about characterization and such (I could make a few). And the historical arguments, because questions like how many Britons the Saxons and Angles killed vs. assimilated are races I don't have horses in. Tremayne definitely has opinions about things like that, and about whether ancient Ireland and the Celtic Church were way better than their neighbors, but he's so obviously in love with his subject that it's kind of charming. (I might feel differently if I had a stake in the answers.) Besides, given a choice between "society which at least doesn't legally bar you from any professions even if there are still social barriers" vs. "society which absolutely legally bars you from a whole lot," well, the first might not be paradise but I'd probably pick that one.

No, let me warn you about the writing. Characters have way, way too many conversations like this:

"As you know, Bocc, I am the rechtaire, or steward, of this abbey, which means that I am in charge of a lot of stuff."

"Why, yes, I did know that, since I also live here and have known you for years. Also we are speaking ancient Irish, which is my native language, so you didn't need to translate 'rechtaire.' That sure sounded peculiar, randomly repeating yourself like that. Or were you actually giving me the Latin title? I couldn't tell."

"Let's say it's the Latin, for that at least makes more sense than telling you what the word might be in the language of the Saxons as it is spoken fourteen centuries from now. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the tech-screpta, which is the library. I also feel a sudden urge to explain that in our society, children are usually sent to be fostered by another family at the age of seven."

"I know that also, having grown up here and been fostered myself. Why don't you let the narrative voice explain these things? You really are overtaxing yourself, and the readers' suspension of disbelief."

I am only slightly exaggerating.

But on the plus side, the author has an amazing knack for making ancient law sound really compelling. He catches your attention with the more obviously murder-related laws, like how you get compensated with cows (in a set number depending on your status) if your relative is murdered. Ooh, motive to kill a relative and frame someone whose family can pay! Then you get into how a foreign husband's social status depending entirely on his Irish wife puts serious strain on their relationship, because legal inequality is awful even if both parties love each other and don't take advantage of that inequality. And eventually you realize you're going, "Wait, each jurisdiction is required to maintain a hospital where even the poorest can receive care, and there are regulations to make sure is has good ventilation and fresh water? Tell me more!" That's pretty impressive.

Maybe if I pretend I'm just studying the books to see what techniques can make millions of readers interested in obscure points of ancient law, I can finally make the part of my brain that feels guilty for reading them shut up.
Tags: books, mysteries, reviews, writing

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