In the opening scene of this small, intimate novel, a group of women marked with the yellow crosses of heretics is led out of prison in Kilkennie, Ireland, in 1324. The watching crowd names the miscreants, wondering, “where is Dame Alice Kytler?” The narrative then jumps back in time to tell us, from the point of view of Alice’s servants and the spiteful bishop who has accused them, how these events developed over the course of the previous six months. Boyce keeps the focus laser-sharp, detailing the daily lives of the wealthy, pragmatic merchant Alice and the women who work for her. The action begins with the arrival of Alice’s childhood friend and her mute, traumatized daughter. They have escaped a raid on their Gaelic settlement, seeking shelter in the Anglicized town, with all its pretensions, gossip, and class conflicts. Kilkennie is a medieval town in transition – a fascinating mix of urban sophistication and peasant superstition, where the clergy and merchant classes struggle for control of the valuable laborers who make an elegant new way of life possible. The narrators navigate these challenges with earthy humor and keen psychological insight, as the malice and greed of men threaten to overcome Dame Alice’s efforts to create a peaceable, profitable community.
This is a marvelously witty, cleverly plotted novel. Fans of medieval history and literature will appreciate how Boyce has woven elements of Irish hero tales and Chaucerian characters into a tapestry of artfully observed historical detail about domestic life. The main character, Petronelle, is derived from a single mention in the Annales Hiberniae; the scheming Alice is clearly inspired by the Wife of Bath. Boyce transforms the existing male-authored accounts of female transgression into a rich network of interdependent women trying to navigate the demands of their faith, family loyalties, and desires.