"They say there's a devil at him in his sleep, and it was he brought it here among them, and who knows which of them it will prey on next? The devil's novice, I've heard him called. Oh, I put a stop to that, at least aloud. But it's what they're thinking."
- Brother Paul, master of novices
"The devil is always the intruder, the stranger, the one who is different. Every successive wave of newcomers from the mainland of Europe, either from the north or the east, was the very devil in its day."
- from SHROPSHIRE: A MEMOIR OF THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE
While Abbot Radulfus questions the wisdom of accepting novices too young to know what they're giving up, he has no objection to a young man past nineteen entering the cloister of his own free will. Meriet Aspley, younger son of the Norman lord of Aspley, seems like a straightforward proposition: a younger son, perhaps seeking a career rather than a vocation, but surely none the worse for that as long as he strives to be a credit to the order. But Brother Paul, for one, is uneasy about him, having never before seen a postulant pursue his vows with such determination but so little joy.
By day, Meriet is all dutiful obedience, studying hard and petitioning to have his probationary term shortened, but by night he wakes the entire monastic household with violent nightmares. He's never served in the armies of either king or empress and seen little of violence save on the hunt, yet the mere sight of a fellow novice struck unconscious by a freak accident sends him into shaken silence. On the other hand, a run-in with Brother Jerome over a keepsake from a red-haired girl suggests other kinds of passion running in Meriet: not only a thwarted love for his elder brother's betrothed, but a hot temper when he tries to defend his trophy from Jerome.
Meanwhile Hugh Beringar pursues the disappearance of another cleric connected with the Aspley household: Peter Clemence, envoy from the Bishop of Winchester to the great lords of Chester and Lincoln and cousin to Meriet, last seen spending the night at Aspley on his way north. Why should a priest disappear at the same time the youngest son of the household was seized with a sudden urge to enter the cloister?
Very tidy mystery here, particularly since Meriet is given to speaking the literal truth under interrogation, so the reader has a certain amount of evidence to work with.
Particularly nice touches:
- Meriet attempting to strangle Brother Jerome.
- The three most formidable members of the Aspley household: Meriet, his father Leoric, and his father's ward Isouda, who's confident that he will be hers in the end.
- How Brother Mark gains a patron for his studies to enter the priesthood (after this book, he doesn't return until SUMMER OF THE DANES).
- Radulfus' consultations with various senior brothers on the issue of accepting children into the order.
- Character development of Brother Paul, the master of novices.
As always, I recommend the unabridged recording narrated by Stephen Thorne.