Content warning Plot Spoilers and Bad Handling of Queer Characters
Everything about this book feels half-baked, from its phoned in title to its reprise of the girl-disguised-as-a-man trope. But what takes this from ho-hum to infuriating is how the author approaches queerness.
I've enjoyed the vast majority of the Cadfael books I've read, and was curious about this one because the blurb seemed to hint at a queer romance between two monks. Unfortunately, the author cannot bring herself to actually write gay characters, and when she tries the results are offensive and bewildering.
The two central characters of the book--the old and ailing Brother Humilis and the young, handsome Brother Fidelis--appear to share a deeply emotional connection that goes beyond mere caretaking. It's a bond that is strongly implied to be gay relationship. Except (surprise)! Fidelis is a woman and (double surprise!) the woman he was betrothed to before he became a monk, so basically his wife.
Meanwhile, the book's labored and tacked-on b-plot features a Brother who is tortured by homosexual lust, and very creepily attempts to extort sexual favors from some of the characters around him. And yet even his lust is always expressed by referring to the objects of his attentions in female terms, in some cases overlaying the face of the woman who wronged him on the men he desires.
It's so many layers of gross , and clearly subject matter the author is completely ill-equipped to handle.
At this point I have read more than half of the Cadfael series, and the others have been inoffensive at the worst. The failures of this one are impossible to ignore, so skip and continue happily to other monastic mystery adventures. You won't miss anything from this one.