REVIEW of The Fifth Knight, by E.M. Powell

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I have had The Fifth Knight on my wishlist for ever-so-long. I had already encountered the author, E.M. Powell, and her writing on-line through her excellent historical blog posts. But when I finally received the book for my birthday in October, I found myself second-guessing whether I really wanted to read it. It’s alternate history. About Thomas Becket. Should I? Could I?

For those of you who don’t know, I wrote my college thesis on Thomas Becket. Kind of like dating someone for a year…you get to know him fairly well. As part of my research for my thesis, I read a handful of historical novels on Thomas Becket, all of which, when compared with the actual primary sources, fell very flat. It’s been over ten years now, though, since I graduated college. Surely, I could put historical accuracy out of my head and just enjoy a good story?

As it turns out, The Fifth Knight is a very good story. I started it last night and finished it this morning before church. Benedict Palmer, a penniless knight, is hired to accompany four other knights to Canterbury. Their mission? To kill Archbishop Thomas Becket. But the reason behind the archbishop’s death isn’t quite the same as the medieval chroniclers would have us believe. Becket was concealing the hiding place of a young nun and her mother, two women that the assassins want dead even more than the archbishop.

When Benedict Palmer learns the true nature of his companions’ plan, he must make a difficult decision: continue on his mercenary quest for gold or act honorably and save the nun Theodosia?

What follows is a Dan-Brown-esque thriller all across the length and breadth of England. Not Dan Brown in a bad way (e.g. the professor in the tweed jacket who looks exactly like Harrison Ford fixing his chocolate-brown eyes on the incredibly intelligent but also incredibly beautiful young woman fifteen years his junior…), but Dan Brown in a good way (i.e. a history-based adventure/mystery so good that, although you’re embarrassed to admit it later, you stayed up all night reading it and couldn’t put it down.) The evil knight FitzUrse reminded me of the villain in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. The book was originally written as a serial novel, and the many cliffhangers build continual tension.

Benedict and Theodosia are both well-drawn and likable characters, and the burgeoning romance between them is well done (although overly explicit for my tastes). Benedict is a swashbuckling hero and Theodosia comes to find out that she has some skillz too when it comes to running, riding, and fighting.

I am usually highly sensitive to modern attitudes toward medieval Christianity in novels–while the story did not necessarily portray medieval monasticism in a positive light, it did a good job of describing the mental state of a nun trying to live apart from the world and mortify the flesh.

The one character that did fall flat for me was King Henry II. His short role in the book was unconvincing and seemed out of character for the Henry we know (and love? Not really…) But despite this, I am still eager to read the next book in the series and see what nefarious villains Benedict and Theodosia are up against in The Blood of the Fifth Knight.

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