It is the Year of Our Lord 1200. King John is on the throne of England, and Harry Talvace is coming home from the monastery where he has spent his boyhood. His father, Sir Eudo, hopes to make Harry a master mason and an important man on his estate. But Harry’s hot sense of justice — a justice that is often at odds with the law — forces him to a choice that sends him and his beloved foster-brother Adam far from the Talvace estate, into France. There he will learn the skills and meet the people that will shape all the rest of his life’s work: the making of a marvelous cathedral on the dangerous Welsh border.
The Heaven Tree, by Edith Pargeter (who also wrote the Brother Cadfael series under the name Ellis Peters) weaves together three strands: the political, the personal, and the architectural. Harry works for Isambard, a fiercely proud nobleman who is bound up with King John’s fate. The politics of England, both at home and abroad, affect Harry’s work at first only distantly. But when Isambard conceives a feud with Llewellyn, the prince of Wales, Harry must make unexpected and impossible choices.
Some of the book’s most beautiful moments come in the descriptions of Harry’s work as the master mason of the church he is building at Parfois, Isambard’s estate. In the year 1200, of course, the Gothic style was just beginning to be born, and Harry’s visions are often shocking to those around him, as when he refuses to ornament his rood screen with a crucifix:
The low rood screen was perfect, delicate, austere. Master Matthew should not touch it again; he should not add one flourish to its spare simplicity. Its springing stems fretted the light into golden ladders across the patterned slip-tiles of the nave. No cross and no figures of mourning should ever cast long, asymmetrical shadows over that field of brilliance, and shatter its unity. He felt for his master carpenter, but he would not have such beauty marred.
The personalities and relationships are what really make the book what it is, however. The characters are strong and flawed, interesting and capable of growth and change, including the women. Madonna Benedetta, an Italian courtesan who becomes Isambard’s mistress, is one of the best female characters I’ve seen in a historical novel in a long time.
Pargeter does a nearly impeccable job of allowing her characters to be both people of their time — bound up with feudal ties and the obligations those impose — and people who can critique and sometimes rebel against those ties. Harry may find feudal law unjust, and may sometimes flout it, but he always has to take the consequences, and others generally find him foolish, not noble.
I completely enjoyed this book. The very first few scenes are a little slow, but once Harry gets to France, I found myself wrapped up in his story, and pulled along right to the finish, surreptitiously crying over the ending. It’s a wonderful historical novel (and, as it happens, the first in a trilogy). I have never been drawn to read the Brother Cadfael books, but this novel was a real treasure, and I can’t wait to read the next one in the trilogy: The Green Branch.