Review: Saint Brigid’s Bones, Philip Freeman
Early sixth century A.D. A monastery clinging to life. First a fire destroys the monastery’s outpost, then someone steals the bones of the monastery’s beloved saint. And on the trail of a deepening mystery is bard-turned-nun Sister Deirdre. So begins Philip Freeman’s first novel, Saint Brigid’s Bones.
Sister Deirdre is having some of the worst luck of her life. First, when Sister Anna, the abbess at the Kildare monastery, sends Deirdre to Sleaty to finish preparations for the new church there, Deirdre manages to burn down the church after forgetting to snuff out a candle at the altar. The monastery had been depending on the harvests brought in by the new church to help fund its mission of feeding the poor, especially widows and children. Now, upon returning home to Kildare, Deirdre finds herself in the midst of a greater tragedy: Saint Brigid’s bones are missing. Without the bones, pilgrims will not come to pray in front of the holy relics, and without the pilgrims’ food donations, the monastery is doomed.
Sister Anna gives Deirdre a chance to redeem herself for the mistake at Sleaty by finding Brigid’s bones. Deirdre is the natural choice to investigate the crime, for she is a trained bard and respected Druid, a noblewoman who can move freely among the country’s elite, and a devout Christian, too. Still Deirdre knows this is no easy task, for suspects abound. From the abbot at Armagh, who would like nothing better than to see the upstart monastery close, to one of Deirdre’s former lovers, now crowned king and still eyeing Deirdre, everyone seems to have a motive to take the holy relics. Will Saint Brigid’s bones be safely ensconced back in the monastery in time for the pilgrimage, or is this one miracle too many to ask for? Only Deirdre can solve a case that is fraught with danger at every turn.
Many myths and much folklore surround Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland. In real life, she was hailed as a nun, abbess, and friend of Saint Patrick. During her lifetime, Brigid was credited with many miracles, which is why she received sainthood. After her death in approximately 523 A.D., her bones were housed at the Kildare monastery she established; many years later, due to fear of the bones being stolen, they were removed from Kildare. Today, something of a controversy exists regarding their final resting place.
Philip Freeman, author of the novel, knows all of that. Freeman’s educational background in Celtic studies as well as his scholarly publications in this particular field make him more than qualified to reveal the intricacies of life in Ireland during that country’s dawning of Christianity. For certain, Freeman does an excellent job of creating a sense of place in his book.
Freeman’s plot development is not too bad either. Whereas many academics are not able to move from fact to fiction with ease, Freeman ensnares readers from the very beginning of the book with the line, “I never meant to burn down the church.” Readers know there is a mystery at hand, and with each revelation, the mystery only intensifies. Freeman also deftly crafts hooks at the end of his chapters to keep readers engaged.
One slight concern is that someone without the background knowledge Freeman has might misconstrue a few details as errors, such as Sister Dari’s quip, “Obviously Brigid wants us to go to the North Pole.” At first, that remark may seem out of place because most people in the novel’s time period would have believed the earth to be flat. Yet, as the author pointed out, due to the nuns’ education, they may have had enough knowledge and enlightenment to recognize possibilities beyond the limitations of their time.
Saint Brigid’s Bones will not appear on bookshelves until October 15, but this new work from Pegasus Books is one not to miss when it is officially released. The way the book ends shows promise for a sequel, so here is hoping that this book will generate enough interest to bring a series to fruition.