With The Mercy Seller, Tennessee author Brenda Rickman Vantrease continues the story of some of the characters from her highly acclaimed debut The Illuminator, yet one need not have read the first novel to be drawn into the intrigue of this 15th-century drama.
The story picks up in Prague, where scribe Anna works with her grandfather Finn, the Illuminator. As the Catholic Church attempts to quell revolt, Anna heads across Europe in search of Sir John Oldcastle to fulfill her grandfather's dying wish. She makes her way to Kent, England, with an integral stop in Rheims. There, she is befriended by Gabriel, a monk in disguise. Rather than sell the pardons that are his stock in trade, he has been pressed into service as a spy by the Archbishop of Canterbury to ferret out details of a heretic conspiracy. Gabriel, disguised as cloth merchant VanCleve, steals Anna's heart. Details would spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Anna makes some decisions that bode ill for her along the way. The history of the period makes a stunning backdrop for this romantic adventure, which features a noblewoman-turned-abbess, more than one castle, a king who would rather not prosecute his friend, and scriptoriums that serve an underground religious movement. Sir John Oldcastle and his wife Joan are real-life historical figures whose story has been told in theater at least once.
Vantrease's characters are richly portrayed, and readers will certainly root for them. Even Gabriel is realistically drawn as a good-hearted man, albeit a bit misguided. By turns exotic, mystical, regal and romantic, the story surges forward to a satisfying end. Anyone with an interest in European or Church history, religious movements or book arts will find this novel addicting. Linda White writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.