A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: Despite a fascinating time period rich in opportunities for conflict, this was a disappointing read with bland characters.
Review contains a whited-out spoiler
Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone that the other has worked so hard to build?
In the year 1535, after a misspent youth, Brother Mark is a hardworking Benedictine monk toiling as a stone mason at Tavistock Abbey. There, he finds himself irrevocably drawn to one of the men sent by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure.
Andrew Cheyne is fascinated by the handsome young man and breaks down the monk’s boundaries with an ease that neither expected. When Andrew returns four years later to finally close the Abbey, each man must also come to terms with their past to attempt to plan a future they can share.
But fate plays a cruel trick on them. Or, as Mark wonders, is it God teaching him a lesson?
Attempting to forget Mark, Andrew commences a brand new life, but fate has more lessons in store for him yet…
It’s a time of religious upheaval in England. Henry VIII’s break from Rome has resulted in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when every religious house was audited for its material worth preparatory to its closure, the wealth going to the Crown and the land sold off or given away by the King. Andrew Cheyne is the assistant to the King’s Commissioner Sir Richard Louden, sent to audit Tavistock Abbey. Andrew is a self-made man who at a young age indentured himself to a local nobleman in order to save his mother and sister. At first he was a messenger travelling around London, but slowly he rose in prominence and was recommended to the Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, as loyal and hard-working and ideal for the task of auditor.
At Tavistock, he goes into the church and is admiring the sculptural work when he meets a handsome young monk, Brother Mark, who’s a stonemason. Though there should be mistrust between them, Mark believes he has an affinity with Andrew and invites him to view the work he has planned for elsewhere in the abbey. They meet in the library and Mark shows him detailed sketches of stone panels. Hidden amongst the drawings Andrew finds a series of erotic male nudes. They both admit an attraction, but then Andrew burns the drawings, saying it’s for Mark’s safety.
The two men meet every evening after Andrew’s auditing work. They tell one another their life stories, and Andrew hears how Mark, the son of a wealthy landowner, used to be a wild young man. His mother was horrified by the company he was keeping and sent him on pilgrimage to Rome in the company of a monk. There Mark learned how to be an artist and found his faith, though he hasn’t quite reconciled his faith with his desires.
Their mutual attraction gets stronger and they have sex just before Andrew’s time at the monastery comes to an end. Andrew returns to London. Four years later, now a King’s Commissioner himself, Andrew is sent to accept the surrender of Tavistock Abbey. Even after four years, Andrew is still mooning over Mark. He announces the closure of the monastery; in private, he announces that he loves Mark. Andrew wants to save him from a miserable life as an ex-monk. But Mark’s skills as a stonemason are good enough that he can survive outside the monastery, and he’s found work with a master mason. Mark can’t watch the act of surrender so he makes arrangements to join his new master and leaves Andrew a note telling him where he’s gone and that he’s going to use his original surname again now he’s no longer a monk. But the note goes amiss.
Andrew has no idea where Mark has gone. He returns to London to finish his duties to Cromwell, and three months later he goes in search of Mark. But all his leads are dead-ends, and broken-hearted, he decides he has to move on with his life. But God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe all is not lost…
This is a book in which lots of things happen—it takes place over seven years or so, after all—and yet it feels like nothing really happens at all. This is mainly due to the lack of conflict and because the two protagonists are rather dull. Not a great deal happens in the first third of the book – they meet, they talk, and during the day Andrew does the audit, but we’re not given any sense of importance or concern over it. We don’t see much of Andrew’s work, and though we get some sense of how Andrew and Mark feel about the clash of the old and new faiths, it’s quite vague. Religious issues as a whole, as well as the issue of homosexuality in that time and place, are touched upon but mostly glossed over.
Mark and Andrew are both rather wimpish characters. I hesitate to use the chicks-with-dicks analogy, because they weren’t that bad, but both men didn’t really seem like men. They were both a bit wet, Mark in particular. They’ve both lived in the real world and are well-travelled, yet they seem naive and moonstruck with one another. Mark especially is ridiculously honest and open towards someone who could destroy his entire life with one word, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone would act like that, even if they believed they had an ‘affinity’.
Every time the potential for conflict (especially external conflict) is introduced, it’s swept aside with ease. For example, Mark and Andrew are surprised in the monastery library by the elderly librarian. Next time they meet, when Andrew mentions the possibility of discovery, Mark tells him they’re safe because the librarian is ill. Later in the story, when Andrew returns to close the monastery, Prior Thomas is cast in a knowing and slightly sinister light. I kept expecting the Prior to confront Mark and Andrew about their relationship, but nothing happened. Even the minor sub-plot regarding the Abbot’s plan to divert finances went nowhere and was resolved off-screen. Later on, the master mason is killed off. It’s suggested that it’s more than a simple accident, but nothing develops from it and it’s clear it’s simply a plot device to keep Mark and Andrew apart for even longer. The one that made me groan out loud, though, was [spoiler] the resolution to the conflict of Andrew’s wife. As soon as she appeared I knew exactly what would happen to her, and I was right. I really dislike sacrificial female characters and this one was so paint-by-numbers, it was ridiculous.[/spoiler]
Added to that, there was little true internal conflict either. As mentioned before, lip-service is paid to the complexities of the faiths at the time, and the politics of the period is given the same treatment. Instead of proper conflict we’re given the kind of plot device that’s been used a million times before.
The book is well written, although there are several editorial issues, mostly concerned with the lack of capitalisation on proper nouns for religious terms. Also, a man cannot be ‘hung’, he’s ‘hanged’.
There’s a decent sense of place and in most respects there’s good attention to historic detail (e.g. the issue of monastic underwear!), which is why it annoys me so much that so many things were glossed over or simplified. On top of that, the rather dull characters, as well as the introduction of manufactured conflict, all add up to a book that left me extremely disappointed. Fans of the author will probably enjoy it, but for me the story failed to deliver.