The Physician’s Tale

Written by Ann Benson
Review by Nicole Leclerc

The Physician’s Tale is the last entry in a trilogy spanning seven centuries and two continents (14th century Europe and 21st century North America). Linked by the plague and the journal of a medieval physician, the two storylines alternate by chapters. The historical part centers on Alejandro Canches, a Jewish physician who must leave his practice and his loved ones to travel incognito from France to England to free his foster daughter from the clutches of King Edward III and reunite her with her young son. The modern tale focuses on the aftermath of two waves of the plague that have decimated mankind and left pockets of survivors struggling to cope in a post-technological world while trying to ward off the threat of a third plague caused by ‘the Coalition’, a group of religious extremists.

Both worlds come to life because of the vivid and well-detailed settings, but mostly because they are peopled with interesting characters, including a few historical ones: King Edward, Chaucer, and Guy De Chauliac, all of whom act in a credible manner. The plots unfold seamlessly and bring insight to medical beliefs and practices, both then and now. People struggle in their social and physical prisons, whether a royal palace or various enclaves where they’re forced to let go of their previous lives and careers to cope with basic survival. Salvation comes through a child, Alex, a product of both eras, so that the past holds the key to the future.

The book stands well by itself, but I can’t help but feel, through multiple allusions to what has happened earlier, that my pleasure could have been heightened by reading the trilogy (The Plague Tales and The Burning Road were the first two volumes) in order. But don’t let the subject of the plague deter you from such a rich and rewarding read.